Saturday, October 1, 2022

Theatre Review: “The Actors” a Profound, Hilarious Metafictional Dramedy

It’s an actor’s worst nightmare: You show up to an audition at the address provided, and instead of arriving at a professional producer’s office, you find yourself at the front door of his apartment. He’s eager to discuss his new “project” with you but is vague about the details. There’s no script, for instance. But won’t you have a seat, and he’ll tell you all about it?

This is how the brazenly original and unexpectedly profound new play “The Actors” (running through Oct. 2 at the Foundry in Wilton Manors) begins, with the legacy of Harvey Weinstein and the casting couch fresh in mind. Struggling actor Jean (Jeni Hacker) is justifiably wary of her latest potential gig, but she’s intrigued enough to stick around and hear more, provided her employer-to-be leaves the front door wide open.

In the first of this play’s many metafictional flourishes, the producer in question introduces himself as Ronnie Larsen, played by the actor Ronnie Larsen, who also wrote and produced “The Actors.” Larsen the character lost both of his parents more than a decade ago—his mother to cancer, his father to a fluke heart attack—and he’s been self-described as “lost,” if not suicidal, ever since. His life may be empty but his inheritance is sizable, and he’s decided to spend it on resurrecting mom and dad, in a manner of speaking.

For Jean and for Clarence (David Kwiat), who shows up at the end of the opening scene, they are to play Ronnie’s mother and father. Plied with their characters’ actual clothing and backstories, they will show up for “just a few hours a week” while the fiftysomething Ronnie relives his childhood, sporting Superman pajamas and celebrating birthdays and ‘70s television with his recast parents.

For Jean and Clarence, bemused but committed, it all makes for fairly easy money until, like a director losing control of his play, Ronnie’s fictional and “real” worlds start to blur, and the actors begin to overstay their welcomes.

From left, Chad Raven, Jeni Hacker, David Kwiat and Ronnie Larsen

“The Actors” is often hilarious, but director Stuart Meltzer, exhibiting a keen grasp of the story’s conflicting angles, understands that its humor and discomfort are as intertwined as DNA strands. With invisible craftsmanship, he pitches the action somewhere between documentary naturalism and the stylization of farce, and it’s remarkable how deftly this combination lands.

The appearance, late in the play, of Ronnie’s estranged brother Jay (Jerry Seeger), opens up new avenues of exploration, allowing Larsen to plumb such themes as the fallibility of memory, the erosion of faith and family, the endurance of grief and the necessity of closure. The acting is solid to exceptional across the board(s), with Hacker and Kwiat, as the actors within “The Actors,” imbuing their parts with a self-reflexive wit that comes close to winking at the audience but, crucially for the play’s integrity, never goes there.

For Larsen, his performance is nothing short of a revelation. We’re accustomed to seeing him in gregarious, outsized roles. But this time he’s largely the comic foil, a figurative “straight man” paralyzed by grief and seeking comfort in a gonzo bubble of engineered affection. He conveys conflicting emotions simultaneously, capturing how curative and unhealthy his “project” can be in equal measure. His monologues are raw and deeply moving, and when he is forced to finally restage a signal moment in his life, we feel his agony.

We’re left to ponder how much, if any, of “The Actors” is autobiographical. By portraying “himself” in the play, Larsen begs this question, and others. It’s easy to read the entire production of a metaphor for the stage itself. Ronnie the character confronts trauma by hiring actors to help make sense of it. Is this not what playwrights and producers have done since the dawn of drama?

This play could very well be a two-hour therapy exercise for Ronnie Larsen, but I prefer not to glean these answers; the great tension of this slippery production lies in not knowing. Either way, these simple offerings spoken by Jean/Ronnie’s mom/Jeni Hacker—it’s hard to know where one layer ends and the other begins—distill the message: “Art can heal. Theatre can heal.”

“The Actors” runs through Oct. 2 at the Foundry at Wilton Theatre Factory, 2306 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Tickets cost $25-$50. Call 954/826-8790 or visit ronnielarsen.com.


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John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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