Sinking with the sharks

There appears to be quite a bit of flux in the Dallas theater scene now, with the ultimate destination for at least two companies still unknown. Right on the heels of the Theatre Three opening of Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or "Schmucks", the regional premiere of a comedy by Jon Robin Baitz, a fax found its way to my desk announcing that three longtime T3 insiders -- Thurman Moss, Sharon Bunn, and Terry Vandivort -- had departed the company to establish their own Lean Theatre in the KD Studios on Stemmons. Lean Theatre had been producing modest shows off and on for years in the Theatre Three basement. But the departure of that trio, who took stage youngsters Nance Watkins and Marc Hebert along with them, represents a significant loss of both performance and administrative talent from the Theatre Three arsenal.

Following their bolting, Dallas audiences are left to ponder the queasy mystery that is the current production of Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or "Schmucks". Being one of the first plays that Jon Robin Baitz wrote (the first draft was created in 1984, the year the story is set), it remains programmatic and entirely too premeditated in the targets it selects, even though it was reworked and staged to stellar reviews in New York in 1998 as a vehicle for Nathan Lane. The businessmen are too corrupt, the Jews too conveniently ethnocentric, the gentiles too pampered and smug, and the gays altogether too flouncy. Everyone in the play seems to spin like a gaudy top in the same tight circumference of character traits but never relates to each other or the larger conflicts of profession vs. pride that the playwright sets up. So, while packed with some trenchant observations about the explosions produced when identities collide, this script was no great shakes to begin with.

The Theatre Three version, co-directed by Jac Alder and Larry O'Dwyer (I'm going to assume the phrase "with the extensive assistance of" means a co-credit is in order), does nothing to ameliorate the play's plodding moralism and hand-puppet characterizations. And it has added grievous injury to the play's limp insults aimed at heedless '80s deal-making by shoehorning Alder into the lead role of Mizlansky, a producer of sleazy mainstream movies who long ago traded his last scrap of humanity for a fast buck. The word "lead" doesn't do justice to the size and function of this part; Mizlansky is a Godzilla clown whose vices are legion and whose utter lack of redeeming qualities makes the other characters' redemption possible. He hatches the play's central scheme, keeps it on track, and oversees it with commentary throughout the show. The role requires a simultaneous mixture of grandiosity, charm, ruthlessness, and the ability to rivet an audience's attention without elbowing away co-stars, whose characters wither or blossom in Mizlansky's towering shadow. It's a part that not many actors anywhere could get right, especially with the precarious balance of a live performance, and one whose biggest pitfall -- the tendency to devour everyone else -- probably happens repeatedly in stagings because the difference between an actor with an avaricious ego playing Mizlansky and an actor playing Mizlansky with an avaricious ego is so treacherously slight.

Yes, it took some hubris for Jac Alder to step into the Italian leather loafers of a Hollywood Jew who creates a tax shelter out of fraudulent Bible recordings for children. Yet he doesn't so much smear himself gaudily all over the production as implode, collapse inward, and create a giant black hole that sucks us all into the void. Alder seems to vacillate between two takes on this character -- one who is aggressively, cynically, but proudly Jewish, and one who is aggressively, cynically, but proudly gay. You needn't look very far to find real-life examples of people who embody all those traits, but Alder flounders while jumping between polarities. The fact that costumer Bruce Coleman has given him the long beads, multiple gold rings, and silky, flowing perpetual pajamas of an aged voluptuary a la Truman Capote seems to stack the cards in the flamboyant queen direction. He's a scheming silver mermaid when the playwright has constructed a lush shark tank for Mizlansky to swim through with predatory glee, addicted to the frightened glances his dorsal fin attracts as it slices through the surface.

I'm not averse to the idea of Mizlansky as decorously gay -- within this stereotype are the kinds of blinding glitter materials with which a resourceful actor could construct a seedy and forceful Hollywood money man, one that we haven't often seen before. But Alder never commits fully to that identity, probably because he's unable to bolster it with anything in the text. And he messes around only sketchily with the Yiddish stuff, which is important considering the play's biggest moral conflict involves the character wooing an anti-Semitic Southern investor (Terry Dobson).

Zilinsky (Hugh Feagin), a former producing partner quaking under threats by the IRS over his dubious dealings, doesn't appear until the second act, in which he parries the offensive manner of the Southern investor with righteous Semitic dignity. But by this time in the production, there's absolutely no heat generated by Mizlansky being forced to consider ethical questions. Feagin has taken acting assignments with Theatre Three off and on since 1963, and he's a reliably professional if bland presence who isn't equipped to take up Alder's slack. Ditto for dashing Bill Jenkins, who does the washed-up matinee-idol stunt he can toss off during a morning shower and shave. Mark Shum plays more or less the exact same fluttery gay neurotic as he did in T3's Beyond Therapy and Stage West's Loot, and given there's less inspiration bubbling around him here than in those productions, the repetition definitely feels worse for the wear.

Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or "Schmucks" comes shambling across the finish line of a season that some, including me, have praised as one of Theatre Three's most consistently polished in memory. Shows like The Boyfriend, The Women, and Major Barbara all captured the style and substance of various 20th-century moments with critical detail, impressive ability, and heartfelt dedication. I have no idea whether Jac Alder couldn't find someone more appropriate for the role of Mizlansky -- male actors of a certain age and demeanor are scarce in this city, as some theater producers have noted -- or whether he truly thought he could remake himself with a performance suitable for Jon Robin Baitz's conscience-free fast-talker. I also don't know if it's a coincidence or an ominous clue that so many staffers left Theatre Three to reinvigorate Lean Theatre just as Mislansky/Zilinsky, or "Schmucks was opening (a relocation that dramatic has to be some time in the works). But this latest misguided offering from the Quadrangle's theater-in-the-round is perplexing and alarming no matter which angle you view it from.

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Jimmy Fowler