Life’s ups and downs at The Ringwald

By |2010-01-21T09:00:00-05:00January 21st, 2010|Entertainment|

Every now and then as a theater critic you’ll walk out of a show and wish you’d liked it better than you did – which is what I felt as I left the opening night performance of “Based on a Totally True Story” at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre. But in this case, the problems I have with the show have little to do with the often funny production as staged by Who Wants Cake? Theatre, but rather with the script.
Young or up-and-coming authors are often told by their mentors or teachers to “write what you know” – that is, to explore subjects with which they have first-hand knowledge or experience. So playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who splits his time writing for Marvel Comics and HBO’s “Big Love,” did just that in 2006 with a tale of a 20-something, gay, New York-based comic book writer whose unproduced play gets optioned for a movie by – guess who? – HBO.
Aguirre-Sacasa crafted “Totally True” as a memory play in which Ethan Keene (Vince Kelley) narrates a condensed retelling of his life from the moment he met soon-to-be boyfriend and fellow writer Michael Sullivan (Jeff Bobick) to the long-awaited preview of his horror flick. Along the way Ethan and Michael move in together, his manipulative producer (Dyan Bailey) requests strange rewrites to his script, his dad (Dan Morrison) drops a bombshell on him in Sears’ tool department, and a trip to Los Angeles is far more adventuresome than he planned – and Ethan handles much of it not particularly well.
That, of course, is where the plot’s conflicts arise. Yet it’s tough to feel much empathy for the self-absorbed and emotionally immature Ethan, since his inability to open up and share his feelings and anxieties are the root causes of his dilemma.
But equally problematic is the script’s construction. Far too much of the show’s important details are explained to us by monologues delivered by Ethan and not revealed to us through character interactions and dialogue. (In other words, don’t TELL me things; SHOW them to me!) And much of the conversations are via cell phone calls, which require no physical interplay whatsoever.
Plus, to be honest, I was fully supportive of Michael’s position and eventual decision – which seems wrong, given that Ethan is the story’s protagonist. (Isn’t that who we’re supposed to root for?)
Yet despite the flawed script, theatergoers on opening night were treated to a laugh-filled evening on the town. Although no new light was shed on the subject of relationships – gay, straight or otherwise – director Joe Bailey makes the most of the sharp and witty dialogue found throughout Aguirre-Sacasa’s text.
So too does his cast, especially Dyan Bailey (no relationship to Joe) who is delightful as Mary Ellen. The smarmy, L.A. based producer knows how to push all of Ethan’s buttons to get out of him what she wants, and she accomplishes it through skilled and gleeful gamesmanship!
Morrison also has fine moments as the dad, Gerald Keene, especially in the second act when his character is given some substance to play with.
The same holds true with the character of Michael, who is offered little more to do by the playwright than moan, groan and coax Ethan to talk about their relationship. Yet Bobick tackles the role with total sincerity and believability. (Thankfully he’s not a whiner, which is one possible direction the character could take.)
And Geoffrey Pearson plays all the extraneous characters and does it well.
So what about Ethan? While not the most likable lead character (thanks to the playwright, he seems totally disinterested in anyone else’s life but his own), Kelley is at his best when he finds Ethan’s playfulness and lets it shine. His asides and mutterings are gems, and his facial expressions and gestures are delicious. (My only question is this: What was the disappearance of the glasses about half-way through the show supposed to signify? If it was a transformation from a Clark Kent-ish persona to Superman, it doesn’t work.)
The simple set by Joe Bailey and Jamie Richards consists of a back wall painted in bright comic book colors decorated with dialogue balloons, plus various furniture pieces that get moved around quite a bit. And Joe Plambeck’s sound design helps make up for whatever else the set lacks to establish scene locations.

‘Based on a Totally True Story’
Who Wants Cake Theatre at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Saturday-Monday through Feb. 1. $10-$20. 248-545-5545.

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