by Melanie N. Lee · August 27, 2015
Jim Shankman, Steven Mark Friedman | Hunter Canning
(Okay, Mel, write a fantastic review that not only shows the meta-brilliance of this one-act show, but your own brilliance as well.) Today’s prefix is “meta-“, which has come to mean “self-aware” or “self-referential”.
The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will, written by Jim Shankman and directed by Craig J. George, is a self-proclaimed metafictional comedy. You know that conversation you have in your head about the conversation you’re having with another? A screenwriter narrates himself to the audience as the lead character in his own play—directions, dialogue, and all. A studio executive realizes he’s the antagonist in the screenwriter’s mind and in this play now unfolding before a live audience. Still with me? Hang on…
Willy Shotz, author of shallow blockbusters of sci-fi, action, and “faux noir”, and now dying of cancer, has written a script that stinks of the A-word—“Art”. Gabe Weiner, frenemies with Willy since their days at Princeton, dreads that Willy will use his imminent death to pressure Gabe to produce an “an intellectual arthouse comedy”—box office poison. The script’s title: The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will.
High on medical marijuana, Willy crams both outer and inner monologues, plus dialogue, into rapid-fire delivery, taking time to “riff away on every little meaningless thing that crosses my path.” In Gabe’s office, script in hand, Willy’s narration—such as “flash those brilliant teeth at me”—directs all Gabe’s actions. However, when Willy runs offstage to sneak a joint to quell his nausea, Gabe, after an awkward moment, turns to the audience: “I had dreams too, you know. I had poetry in my soul, too. I think. …but you know what? If you leave the stage in your own play to go smoke a bone in the john, then you get what you deserve.” Willy returns, asking the audience, “Did he…? Was he…?” And the audience tattles.
The dialogue is so rapid-fire that I wanted to hit “replay”—yet to slow down the dialogue would betray the rhythm and purpose of this play. After all, we are cramming both inner and outer dialogue through one mouth each. The playscript by Jim Shankman is overwhelming brilliant, hilariously on-target as we recognize not only our duality of outer versus inner self, but the modern struggle between serious art and commercial crowd-pleasers. The play also notes our tendency to see ourselves as “3D” and others as “2D”.
Shankman, who reminds me of a cross between Robert Duvall and Jimmy Durante, captures Willy’s wretchedness, soul-hunger, and jaded brilliance. Steven Mark Friedman as the supposedly soulless Gabe shows the contrast between the slick producer who must win the game and the spiritually starved man who longs to be—or, at least, to be considered—more than “part human”. Both actors are stunningly great.
I hear there’s a longer version of The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will, which I would love to see. I wouldn’t mind seeing this shorter version again, either. Highly recommended!