Filmmaking is war in topical 'spec'
L.A. Times

Philip Brandes
October 29, 2004
p. E32

"Think microcosm," barks a wannabe film director to his long-suffering, still unpaid scriptwriter, in the face of their zero budget. "Give me a virus that wreaks havoc -- but only on one city block."

Tom Grimes' sardonic movie biz parody, "spec," is bound to find a receptive audience here in L.A., although its relentless absurdity sometimes puts it at odds with its own darkening tone, and with the efforts of a hardworking Alliance Repertory Company cast trying to add depth to cartoon characters.

LITTLE COMFORT: John LeMay, left, and
Joe Gregori are wannabe filmmakers in "spec."

(Photo by Scott Campbell)

Grimes' 1990 play about a film project used as a cover for Middle East covert military operations has been updated with references to Halliburton, the new Bush administration and other current events, but its essentially unchanged underlying structure and message remain remarkably topical.

Snappily directed by Scott Campbell, the play's merciless barbs about soul-corrupting Hollywood as metaphor for national imperialism hit their targets with deadly accuracy. The lawyer-turned-aspiring-director, Al (John LeMay), wheedles the schlemiel writer, Mike (Joe Gregori), with double-talking arrogance worthy of P.T. Barnum -- or a present-day spin master.

But Al and his protege are easy marks when a shady producer (Tim Abell), in league with a special ops commando (Mark Sivertsen) and a smuggler (Rod Rowland), dangles an irresistible get-rich quick opportunity: a lavishly funded location shoot in a hotbed of political turmoil.

The performers bring admirable conviction and intensity to their roles, but they're constrained by the play's unwavering one-note mordant humor when the war movie film shoot inevitably gets overrun by real war. Al can't step outside his cinematic reality for a human moment -- even when one of his team is shot, he only snaps: "Don't go all Method on me."

As a result, it becomes increasingly unclear how the audience is supposed to take what it's watching. A more congruent tone would make a smart play into a truly dangerous one, worthy of its caution that "history is something we forget and repeat."

-- Philip Brandes
Theater Beat;
Oct. 29, 2004