Hollywood Dreams… Where Nothing is Real

I’m writing this just as word came in of a tentative deal that would end the Hollywood writers strike. Which is welcome news, of course, for our country’s creatives and, by extension for all of us, their audience. But I can’t help feeling sorry for everyone involved in the glittery, glamorous, immensely lucrative (for the rare few) … but also incredibly caustic and phony movie business.

At least that’s the picture painted – thankfully hilariously – by South Florida’s most acclaimed and productive resident playwright, Michael McKeever. I was thrilled to learn that his Carbonell- and Palm Award-winning black comedy, CLARK GABLE SLEPT HERE, was back in town (I last caught it at Miami Lake’s Main Street Playhouse in 2018 and loved every minute). Jam packed with acerbic wit, running social commentary, showbiz insights – not to mention head-spinning plot twists supported by some of the best, original comedy sketches – make this one show I’d be happy to attend over and over again. But especially so once I learned that Ronnie Larsen’s POW (Plays of Wilton) company would be the producer of this ultra popular McKeever play (out of 38 full-length scripts!). And was staging it at their fabulously intimate The Foundry venue in Wilton Manors, fancied for its “can’t-get-more-up-close-and-personal” three rows of stadium seats. 

What’s more, Larsen tapped the show’s original director, Stuart Meltzer (superstar founding artistic director of Miami’s Zoetic Stage) and two respected members of the original cast to resurrect their award-winning roles. So we get to see playwright McKeever excel once again as driven, unscrupulous talent agent Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard and Lela Elam as “one sexy lady you don’t wanna mess with” Morgan Wright. 

Sometimes it’s hard to accept new faces in a role you’ve seen earlier but these three cast additions totally usurped my earlier vision. Local favorite Tom Wahl nails his part as anxious, out-of-his-element hotel manager Gage Holland, and I totally get why hunky, charismatic Jeff Brackett was imported from NYC to play the naked dead (even more impressive as Travis in his unanticipated resurrection). 

Stunned hotel manager Holland (Tom Wahl, left) is persuaded to join the dark side of
Hollywood by unscrupulous megastar agent Hilly (Michael McKeever).

But I’ve left my biggest surprise revelation for last. Recent BFA in Theatre Performance, University of Florida graduate Emma Garcia Seeger, with only a handful of local roles under her belt, gives a truly remarkable performance – in Spanish and English – as Estella, the maid. Her highly physical, comic routines in which she recounts how she’d come to discover the “dead” naked body in the room brought to mind no less a legendary comedienne than Lucille Ball in classic “I Love Lucy” scenes. Seeger’s expressive face also speaks volumes, and she’s a cutie whose looks can be played up or down. I predict great stardom in her future, while praying she stays wary of the dark side of Tinseltown so eloquently evoked in this play. 

For those not familiar with “Clark Gable Slept Here,” I hope I’ve whet your appetite. The plot revolves around what to do when the nude corpse of a young man (presumed prostitute, overdosed on cocaine) is found lying face down (bare bum on display) in the penthouse suite of Chateau Marmont, an upscale hotel-to-the-stars on Sunset Blvd. The room was booked to celebrity action star Patrick Zane who, at the moment, is attending Hollywood’s Golden Globes Award ceremony where he’d been nominated for Best Actor.  

Horrified, Spanish-speaking maid, Estella, summons hotel manager Holland who decides to phone Zane’s agent “Hilly,” assuming he’ll call 911. Instead, Hilly contacts industry “fixer” Morgan Wright, who owes him a favor, to discreetly dispose of the body. She is not a happy camper. His call had pulled her from the Golden Globes front row where she’d been enjoying a hot-and-heavy flirtation with actor Jon Hamm. 

But Hilly matter-of-factly decides there’s no way it can come out that a dead male hooker was found in the hotel room of his married and in-the-closet megastar. He resolutely informs the panicking hotel manager that this situation is not about caring about a human who’s died but rather about his client, Patrick Zane, whose “legacy and brand” is at risk in an environment where “suddenly at 46, you’re old” and “have passed your expiration date.” Hilly makes no presumptions about his star’s lack of real talent, following with: “Two years I have spent supporting parts right in the middle of his wheelhouse … that is NOT a very big wheelhouse.”

When conscience-conflicted Holland cries out, “You can’t just make a corpse disappear!” Hilly’s nonplussed response is: “This is Hollywood. Of course we can.”

And when unexpectedly revived prostitute Travis claims that he and Zane are in love and have been getting together for close to five months, both Hilly and Morgan burst out in uncontrollable laughter. Even Holland recognizes that his hotel is, and must remain, a discreet upscale liaison destination for the industry. He may be reluctant to commit to a coverup at first, but in the end, his position in maintaining the hotel’s reputation trumps doing the right thing. And even he recognizes that “love” is rarely part of the equation, when he says, “The Scientologists alone could keep me booked for the next five years.”

Maybe it’s in the Hollywood air. While none of the characters in the play are scripted as actors, each one is eventually outed as “playing a part” (which I won’t reveal, except to say almost nothing is what it seems). Even the play’s title – taken from the bedroom suite site where headshots of silver screen icons line the walls and whose reputation, according to Holland, is based on the fact that “legends walked these halls” – may not be   true. At one point, Holland states: “Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard in this very suite.” But did he really? 

Maybe it’s all just invented publicity. Especially given Hilly’s profoundly cynical soliloquy about the agent’s role in creating a Golden Globe winner:

“Patrick Zane is not a human being. Patrick Zane is a multinational enterprise. He is a billion-dollar industry that impacts the lives of thousands of people. A billion dollar industry that has been carefully and methodically cultivated over the past two decades until it was honed into the well-run, well-respected, possible award-winning brand that it is tonight.”      

And how does the megastar agent manage this enterprise? 

“We will do anything, say anything, kill anyone to keep our legends clean and unblemished.” And “America is grateful.” While the cover-up attitude appears alive and well both in politics and show business today, I’m not sure America wants or even expects absolute purity from their public figures anymore. We may be shocked at sudden exposed indiscretions, but I think we, at least some of us, are coming around to admiring our heroes for being human, failings and all, and for honestly sharing their journey. But maybe that’s only in the long run.

The phenomenal cast of Michael McKeever’s CLARK GABLE SLEPT HERE take their
bows to a standing ovation. From left: Emma Garcia Seeger, Lela Elam, Michael
McKeever, Tom Wahl, Jeff Brackett. Playing through October 15 at The Foundry.

Despite premiering at Zoetic Stage in 2014, the play’s cultural references still work beautifully (and we can all recognize them), while a few lines have been updated – like a reference to Twitter (though the next production might substitute “X”), a “Hey Boomer!” retort, and a job offer at Netflix. The Foundry stage’s expensive penthouse suite furnishings are exquisitely detailed (doesn’t look like a set at all) with playwright and actor Michael McKeever also credited for scenic design. (Is there no end to this man’s talents?) But then I noticed his husband and creative partner, director Stuart Meltzer, is also credited for sound design. What an A-list team! Award-winning and super busy Preston Bircher provided expert, as always, lighting design. And Bailey Hacker, another recent Theatre Studies graduate who’s building local cred, embraced her    opportunity to shine as production stage manager. 

I attended a sold-out opening weekend matinee and heard future ticket sales are flying fast out the door. Don’t miss your chance to see McKeever at his wittiest and most acerbic best in a show that features our own local superstars, a hot and impressive New Yorker, and a rising-star newcomer. Ronnie Larsen and Plays of Wilton present CLARK GABLE SLEPT HERE by Michael McKeever through October 15 at The Foundry, 2306 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors 33305. Tickets at www.ronnielarsen.com.  Or call 954-826-8790.

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