Based on a Totally True Story
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 12, 2006
The entire company of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s new comedy, Based on a Totally True Story, accomplishes an impressive feat. They take a familiar story—in this case, the coming-of-age story of a young man enduring the first fiery trials of adulthood—and tell it so well that you’ll almost think you haven’t seen it many times before. On every level, this is a fresh and well-done production that will charm everyone who sees it.
Ethan Keene is an up-and-coming writer whose plate is full. He’s a prolific playwright whose work often gets produced regionally (but not yet in New York), and, for his day job, he writes one of DC Comics’ flagship titles, The Flash. Enter Michael, a journalist and novelist whom Ethan meets in a Chelsea coffee shop. (Ethan is quick to point out that he hangs out there because it’s where John Cameron Mitchell likes to write, “and not because it’s totally cruisy!”) They hit it off, and start dating, but their relationship is put to the test soon afterwards. Ethan gets commissioned to write the screenplay adaptation of one of his plays, a project that immediately consumes him (on top of his usual workload). Adding fuel to the fire is Ethan’s dad, who blithely announces one day that he’s in love with another woman. With all the conflicts in place, Based on a Totally True Story chronicles Ethan’s first taste of A-list career success, his parents’ impending divorce, and how both affect his relationship with Michael.
Aguirre-Sacasa does several things well here. I like the way he captures a couple of essential truths about the writer’s life. First, that it can devour a person whole. Ethan tells us that when he really gets wrapped up in writing something, he gets lost. “I go to that place,” he says, and we know exactly what he means. He’s talking about that zone where nothing else matters—not boyfriends or parents or other projects, only the writing. Second, that there may always be some part of his or her self that a writer shares with no one else. Ethan admits that he’s afraid that if he shares too much of his life with others, he won’t have enough of it left for his writing. This is his justification for not telling Michael anything about his father’s affair, or sharing the mounting pressure he keeps putting on himself to deliver a top-quality screenplay. Of course, by hiding both, Ethan puts his own relationship in jeopardy.
Another great thing Aguirre-Sacasa does is to illustrate how the characteristics of the parents are sometimes handed down to their kids. Ethan’s fatal flaw turns out to be that he doesn’t know how to share himself with others, a trait he learned from his folks. It’s easy to trace the lineage of this characteristic by watching Ethan’s dad deal with his own personal life. He can’t figure out yet exactly how to tell his wife that he doesn’t love her anymore, so he confides in Ethan and asks for his help (which is apparently the first time he’s ever done anything like that). Later, when he finally comes clean to his (unseen) wife, she admits feeling the same way, much to their mutual relief. But when his girlfriend gets cold feet and changes her mind, Ethan’s dad asks to be taken back, which his wife flatly refuses. For her, the good thing they had going has been ruined by the utterance of truth. “Don’t you see? You ruined it. You said it out loud,” she tells him.
Based on a Totally True Story is also funny, taking aim at show business and daily New York living. Mary Ellen, the producer who options Ethan’s play, tells him that, in the craft of screenwriting, “There’s too original and too challenging, but there’s no such thing as too schematic.” During their first conversation, she enthusiastically says of his play, “It’s very cinematic. Have other people told you that?” “Yes,” he answers. “But not as a compliment.” Later, while in the middle of an argument, Michael suggests that perhaps he should move out and find somewhere else to live. Ethan balks at that. “Trying to find an apartment in this real estate market is insane!” During that same fight, Michael admits that he chose to date Ethan over “a medical student—THE HOLY GRAIL!” In addition, Aguirre-Sacasa gives his play an injection of youthful emotion, but without any of the attendant self-pity, substituting sincerity instead (a much better choice).
Manhattan Theatre Club gives Based on a Totally True Story a top-notch production. Michael Bush’s direction is clean, economical, and smart. He knows where to let the actors breathe and when to rein them in, and he gives the play a fluency and speed that suits it. Michael Tucker gives an endearing performance as Ethan’s formal father. Kristine Nielsen once again strikes comic gold as Mary Ellen, making her sunny and optimistic in that aggressive way that borders on crazy. Erik Heger shines in a variety of supporting roles, including Ethan’s jock-ish comic book editor. And, as Ethan and Michael, Carson Elrod and Pedro Pascal carry the production effortlessly. They are funny, grounded, and utterly convincing.
Based on a Totally True Story is actually based on real events from Aguirre-Sacasa’s life, which is not surprising. It does have a very drawn-from-personal-experience feel to it. Thankfully, there is nothing self-indulgent about it. Whatever those events taught the playwright about writing and life, it’s clear that he’s learned his lessons well.