No People Like Show People

"The American theater's in a shitload of trouble," the "stage manager" says to the audience in Anton in Show Business, Jane Martin's roundhouse punch at the absurdity of the acting profession. That may be true, but the funny thing is, by choosing this dark, smart satire as its season opener, the new Second Thought Theatre company proves there's still hope. The real trouble with American theater is that there are too few plays or players so lively as these.

With an all-woman cast, Anton in Show Business, much like Michael Frayn's loopy Noises Off, uses a play within a play to expose the messy sausage-making process involved in getting a drama from page to stage. The play inside Anton is Chekhov's long kielbasa of tragedy, The Three Sisters. In that one the main characters are the dreary Prozorov sibs, who live outside Moscow and yearn for something, anything to interrupt their dull routine. The main characters in Anton are three actresses who live on the outskirts of stardom and yearn to be famous enough to qualify as subjects of an E! True Hollywood Story. This trio meets in a New York casting office to audition for an experimental production of the Chekhov that will open in a tiny playhouse in San Antonio. Just how wildly ridiculous both the play and the play within will be is revealed when the actresses are ordered by their director to act Chekhov's scenes using only the words "tiddledy-bee" and "tiddledy-boo" to express their emotions. It's a tiddledy-beaut.

So is Holly (Amy Storemski), a stunning TV star willing to slum it as Masha on the regional boards to tone her acting muscles for work on the big screen. Obsessed with losing her looks--because acting is "a beauty contest, not a profession," she says--Holly admits to 17 plastic surgeries, including a special procedure to get her toes "slimmed." Lisabette (Jenny Ledel) is a twangy young SMU drama grad who's abandoned her steady job teaching third grade to try to break into acting. Casey (Allison Tolman) is the aging off-off-Broadway veteran who's just celebrated the close of her 200th play "without ever being paid a salary." She smokes, sulks and wears droopy layers of unflattering natural fibers. Call her a "character actress" at the risk of getting slugged. Of course, she's cast as Olga, czarina of angst.

Enter some strange and colorful theatrical lunatics: the bossy stage manager and the militant director in a "Black Rage" T-shirt (both played by the gorgeous Julia Alford); a country music lunk trying to break into acting and away from his wife and kids, and an avant-garde Polish director (both are Barbara Bouman); a gay costume designer, a pinstriped corporate underwriter, a director with degrees from Stanford, Harvard and Yale, and a galaxy of other hangers-on (all played by Alford, Bouman and Meridith Morton), swanning into and out of the ragged rehearsals. As directors quit and funding dries up, the play within the play begins to disintegrate.

Just when all the yammering about the pain and heartache of the acting life starts to sound impossibly inside-baseball, up pops a member of the audience (Kate Borneman), a theater critic for the "Bargain Mart Suburban Shopper's Guide," to dissolve the fourth wall and verbally lash the onstage actors for appearing in a play that's so preciously self-referential. Doing a play about doing a play, says the critic, is like "beating a dead horse from the inside."

Good line. One of many. This playwright, Jane Martin, expertly homes in on the pomposity of the theater world, but also has that rare writerly knack of finding funny words to tickle the ear. Casey gets the best bits of wordplay. To break the tension during a fight between Holly and Lisabette, Casey blurts, "Anyone want some Skittles?" Sharing stories of her long struggles as an actress, Casey tells her co-stars she once worked in a slaughterhouse. "I could cut the pigs' throats at night," she says, "and leave my days free for auditions." Casey's mother, we learn, "was the only American killed by prairie dogs." One hilarious rant sends Casey into near apoplexy about the many ways audience members can destroy a good performance. "They cough, they sneeze, they sleep! They unwrap little hard candies and run for the exits during the curtain calls!" (She might have added, "And not just at Theatre Three!")

This is all delectable inside dish. Only someone who has toiled for many seasons in the lonely vineyards of regional theater could write about it with such juicy wit and authority. The pseudonymous Martin, author of Talking With... , Keely and Du, Jack and Jill and half a dozen other plays, certainly knows whereof she writes, taking pokes at flaky actors, ignorant sponsors, self-worshiping directors, prickly critics and even the holiest of holies, the actors' union, Actors Equity, "who make sure no more than 80 percent of its members are unemployed."

But anyone wanting to take Martin to task for chomping the hands that feed her as a theater insider would have a hard time finding her to pick the fight. Although Martin is one of America's most honored playwrights, earning a Pulitzer nomination and four American Theatre Critics Association awards over the past 20 years (including one for Anton in Show Business in 2000), no one yet can say for sure who she really is. Productions of Martin's work are the biggest draws at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, but she has never once appeared when audiences shouted "Author! Author!" Martin, always identified in bios as a Kentucky native, has never granted an interview, never released a photo nor made any public statement.

Anton in Show Business, many critics believe, comes closest of any of Martin's work to solving the mystery. The play provides ample evidence that "Jane Martin" is indeed Jon Jory, the now-retired artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Over the years, it's always been Jory who directed debuts of Martin's plays, accepted kudos for her or spoke on her behalf. ("I'm not going to talk about that," Jory invariably answers when asked if he and Martin are one and the same.)

Anton seems to reflect, with screamingly funny insights, Jory's lifetime of experience in and around the business of show (his father was actor Victor Jory, best known as Tara's evil overseer in Gone With the Wind). Who better than an esteemed regional theater professional to skewer the egotistical ravings of half-wit actors and actresses and to puncture the ridiculous air of self-importance exuded by overeducated directors attempting to inject some "street doo-wop" into classics? Anton in Show Business reads like it might have been written in one long, manic purge, perhaps after watching the hundredth hissy fit thrown by some numbskull thesp who'd rather be starring in a remake of Three's Company than rehearsing Three Sisters. The play, while full of comic rage, is especially accurate in capturing the way women talk to and work with each other, the undercurrents of competition women often feel regarding beauty and sex appeal. Does Jory co-write his plays with wife Marcia Dixcy? They'll never tell.

Whoever he or she is, Jane Martin gets it all down in Anton, from the in-jokes about ditzy sitcom stars to the speeches about devotion to craft that the characters express in some of the more poignant moments at the end of the play. Tricky work, putting on a play in which professional actors have to be both dumb and smart, portraying the very stereotypes they may have studied for years not to emulate. The seven players (plus two dancers) in Second Thought's young company--made up of Baylor University drama grads--make an impressive debut. They have spot-on comic timing as they zip through their 15 roles. Director Tom Parr IV keeps the pace brisk, almost to a fault. Slowing down the breakneck speed would relax the hectic pacing of the first act. The second act seems laggy by comparison.

One actress, Tolman, is a real standout. Everything she does as the mordant Casey is so funny, so interesting, it's hard to watch anyone else. She's the only actress in the cast one can imagine might actually make a successful transition to the real Chekhov someday.

"Satire is what closes on Saturday night," wrote the Roman poet and playwright Juvenal. He meant it was a tough sell to theatergoers. Second Thought's season premiere actually closes on Sunday, so catch it quick. After all, it takes healthy sales to help theater out of its merde-filled morass and to keep exciting new troupes afloat. It would be a shame to see this bunch go tiddledy-bye.