Notes on the Land of Earthquake %amp; Fire
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
August 14, 2009
Power is everything in the entertainment jungle of Southern California. The individuals who have it and those who don't are in stark contrast to one another in Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire, the up-and-down new offering from playwright/director Jason Schafer, on the boards at the Players Theater at this year's FringeNYC Festival. Despite a couple of strong individual performances and some pithy zingers thrown between characters, the the play's depiction of the behind-the-scenes power struggles of a cut-rate Hollywood film is a well-worn topic, and fails to truly break any new ground.
The story centers around a gay Hollywood assistant named Chad who spends his days wrangling the wants and needs of the teenage daughter of his domineering boss, Alan Howard. Chad's dreams and aspirations run considerably higher than to be a mere assistant—his real goal is to be a part of script development in lieu of a babysitter. He gets trapped at Alan's beach house in Malibu, where he is ambushed by Shane. Shane is the overly medicated producer of the surfing movie that Alan's studio is currently making, a film that is based heavily on Chad's notes, notes that Alan has taken direct credit for. When Alan returns to the beach house, he discovers an entirely naked Shane passed out on a surfboard and a stammering Chad trying to explain the madness. The second act plays out on the Malibu deck while a raging wildfire keeps all of the characters trapped at the house without a way out, to work through their issues (and the plot points).
It isn't that there are obvious plot flaws in Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire, it just feels like I've seen the "backstabbing Hollywood studio employees" plot a million times before in countless movies on afternoon cable TV—therefore why put it onstage? The gay themes that dominate involving Chad and Shane are neither shocking nor revelatory, and some plot point reveals are seen coming from a mile away. The good news about Schafer's script is that the dialogue is legitimately funny in parts and provides opportunities for sharp back-and-forth between Chad (Ian Scott McGregor) and Alan (Scott Aiello), which both actors bite into with gusto. Aiello channels more than a little bit of Ari Gold from TV's Entourage as his character relishes ripping into his assistant, but by play's end Chad has effectively wrestled a good bit of the power in the relationship from Alan (who turns out to be a lot like Roy Cohn from Angels in America).
And just when Chad gets the upper hand...argh! The climactic scene of Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire falls far short of providing us with a satisfying or shocking ending to their struggle—and trust me when I tell you that Schafer had plenty of possible stronger choices to end the piece with. I counted six or seven red herrings and/or loose ends that would have been plausible choices, proving that Schafer had this audience member right where he wanted me, buying into the premise and waiting for the payoff. That sense of deflated expectations is so unfortunate as it truly is the part of the experience that I remember the most. Walking out, I was still hoping for what might have been—and if that was the point Schafer was shooting for, well, he got it. But it didn't feel that way—it felt like getting a flat tire 500 yards from the checkered flag.