So who wrote Anton in Show Business, the current offering by (Mostly) Harmless Theatre? There's a rumor floating about that purported author Jane Martin is actually Jon Jory, who spent more than a quarter-century as the successful artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. This makes sense. For starters, a gender-bender author would be consistent with the rationale behind having Anton's all-female cast also perform the male roles. More important, it would explain the play's authority. Clearly this highly enjoyable spoof of a regional-theater production of Chekhov's Three Sisters was written by someone who knows the territory.
Jeremy Sher, Josh Bywater and Will Ledbetter in The Chosen
The Chosen By Aaron Posner; adapted from the book by Chaim Potok. Performed by the New Jewish Theatre through October 20 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus. Call 314-442-3283.
Anton in Show Business By Jane Martin. Performed by the (Mostly) Harmless Theatre through October 13 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111.
The premise is terrific. A sexy soap-opera diva (Linda Meade) wants to pursue decent movie roles by pumping up her résumé with some serious theater credits. "Then you're a classic actress with really great breasts," she explains. After being warned by her agent that if she's going to try to act, she'd best do it where no one in the business will see her, she winds up portraying Masha in a backwater theater in San Antonio that is beset by a myriad of unpredictable mishaps. Anyone who has ever worked in the theater is going to laugh a lot, especially in Act 1.
But somewhere along the way, the author -- whoever he/she is -- apparently decided that writing a comedy wasn't challenge enough. So every once in a while the play tries to tackle a "theme," as if it wants to be taken seriously. (Who says you can't take a comedy seriously?) By evening's end, the script has ceased doing what it does best, instead calling attention to the fact that -- laugh lines aside -- we're left with a grab bag of eclectic, unresolved issues and characters.
Are we supposed to care about the actress who has learned she has breast cancer (Erin Whitten) or the tobacco industry's callous funding of the arts? I hope not, because the script doesn't. Yet there is such an abundance of hilarious material, I'm sure this play will become a mainstay of community theaters for years to come, and everyone who works on it will have a therapeutic ball.
Ironically, and somewhat sadly, Anton in Show Business has nothing to do with its namesake, Anton Chekhov. Except for the inclusion of a wonderful old émigré director (Elizabeth Watt), who supplies the evening with a touch of wisdom and compassion, the San Antonio theater might be staging any old play with three actresses. (How about Crimes of the Heart?) Nor does the regional-theater movement have much to do with "show business."
So what is this mistitled comedy that is neither vitriolic enough to qualify as satire nor deft enough to qualify as farce? If, at the outset, it begins as a laundry list of accumulated punchline observations, ultimately it becomes a love letter. Toward the end of the play, the most starry-eyed of our three sisters (Annalise Portnoy) describes a community-theater production of A Raisin in the Sun that touched lives. Her account is a poignant reminder that ever so occasionally, theater surprises and delights us, as this play does. All too often it disappoints us, as this play does. But when, as this play does, theater is able, through its own mirror reflection, to remind us why -- despite the constant disappointments, and ever in hope of new surprises -- we continue to attend, then it has served a reaffirming role indeed.