Cheap Sentiment

Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays at Annenberg Center, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., through Feb. 11, 898-6791.

Bruce Graham's latest play, Cheap Sentiment (his tenth with the Festival Theatre, this time co-produced with the George Street Playhouse of New Brunswick), begins as a play about a cultural clash.

It's 1987 (we find out only much later in the play). David (Evan Pappas), a Hollywood film director, has come to a crab house on the Chesapeake to shoot his new breakthrough independent film (once the script is rewritten, the funding is in place, and the hot-property starlet agrees to sign on). There he encounters two locals who have either no interest or else great contempt for the movie industry.

So far so good. The action is breezy, the wit (the playwright's and the characters') is sharp, and the direction (by Tom Bullard) is fluid.

Then, more than a half hour into the play, through a plot twist which I won't reveal to you (Graham has been known to threaten theater critics with bodily harm if they reveal his plot twists), the play shifts gears and is now about a cultural clash of a different sort. Now it's a conflict between the Old Hollywood and the New: between the old studio system, where actors and writers were owned by the studio heads, and the new system, where stars and their agents can make or break a project; between old-time formulaic escapist entertainment, and contemporary character- or theme-driven scripts.

Moreover, it's a conflict between a foul-mouthed veteran screenwriter from the '40s and '50s (Roger Serbagi) and the young-turk film director who has turned to him for rewrites. David wants "thematic underpinnings." The writer wants a lively story (he imagines Jean Arthur, Henry Fonda, Ralph Bellamy and Thomas Mitchell in the principal roles), with plenty of "cheap sentiment" (his term, not mine) -- the kind of thing that, he remembers from his youth, enabled a sonuvabitch like Al Jolson to draw tears from an audience full of immigrant butchers in manipulative schmaltz like Sonny Boy.

So far so good. Graham is most at home when he's a satirist, and the satire here -- of Hollywood pitch-making and dealing and scriptmaking, old and new -- is keen. Besides, we're waiting for the plot complications.

When these come, though, we're in yet another play altogether. Now the conflict is between the scriptwriter and the sonuvabitch union-busting red-baiting old studio head (Allen Swift), who had forced the writer out of the business back in the '50s by asking him to sign a loyalty oath and by refusing to produce the writer's masterpiece, a lefty historical epic with a (by Hollywood standards) downer ending, that has since become the legendary great-unproduced-screenplay read and admired by film students everywhere.

This too makes for an interesting play -- or at least it could, were it not overloaded with plots, threats, counterplots, counterthreats and simmering plans for revenge, all in reference to events that transpired 35 years earlier. As it is, the play gets bogged down in a scene that's little more than two Jews bitching, conniving and insulting one another and anyone else they can think of. (Graham has read An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, so we can trust him on the details about Hollywood Jews).

A few years ago Graham started working, with some success, as a television and movie scriptwriter in Hollywood (the new one, that is), so it's not surprising that his sympathies lie with the beleaguered writer, who never gets the autonomy and respect he deserves, and who learns, by the play's end, that the new Hollywood can fuck you over as effectively as the old.

Nor is it surprising that Graham harbors a sympathy for the screenplays of the old Hollywood, when movies embraced fantasy, when plots were formulaic but exquisitely crafted, and when cheap sentiment could really move audiences, even if it tempted audiences (and, occasionally, the writers) to mistake such sentimental fantasies for real life.

What is surprising is that Graham doesn't follow his own models, and doesn't employ the tight plot structure (the formulaic "overture and three acts" of screenwriting) in his own play to pull the sentiment off: the "overture" is too long, and the "third act" (Cheap Sentiment's Act II) -- two Jews playing hardball -- feels like it goes on forever.

Fortunately, Serbagi, as the screenwriter, carries the day, with equal dollops of charisma, obnoxiousness, self-righteousness, sentimentality and acerbic wit (the last a Bruce Graham speciality, especially when combined with charisma and sentimentality). Serbagi becomes uninteresting only when his character becomes most highly motivated: when, in the "third act," consumed with revenge, the writer merely becomes a straightman-Yid to Swift's avaricious Jew.

Mary Fogarty plays the no-nonsense crab house owner ("I'm Polish," she says, to explain all of her character's idiosyncrasies; Graham is an equal-opportunity ethnic stereotyper), and Reiko Aylesworth is movie-buff/production assistant/woman-on-the-make.

It's clear, though, who Graham would really like to have in his cast. Just imagine: how about Jean Arthur as the feisty career woman, Henry Fonda as the young idealistic hero, Ralph Bellamy as the blocking heavy, and, as the benevolent old man who brings about the happy ending at the expense of his own future, Thomas Mitchell.

And there's the problem. It's not that Bullard's New Brunswick-based cast aren't equal to their Hollywood models; it's that Graham is trying to have it both ways. He constantly reminds the audience and his characters that Hollywood isn't, and never was, the real world, and that movies back then weren't life, but were only cheap sentiment served up as escapist entertainment.

But you can tell that he secretly wishes that a play can be as tidy and as manipulative as an old-time Hollywood movie, and that semi-downer endings can still be uplifting when the camera dollies in on the benevolent old man, the shot fades to black, the music wells up, and the credits start rolling.

They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

-- Cary M. Mazer