I walked out of According to Goldman, a new work playing at Theatre Row by Bruce Graham, very torn in my opinion of it. The show follows a retired screenwriter, Gavin Miller (Nicholas Viselli), who’s partially settled into life as a college professor while he ignores his wife’s (Pamela Sabaugh) comfort. Gavin is disgusted at the students in his class, so he finally acquiesces to Jeremiah (Stephen Drabicki), an enthusiastic Religion major, requesting to be added to the class. Finding out further about Jeremiah’s past as the child of missionaries growing up in Africa, Gavin advises him to develop a screenplay based on his life experiences rather than aping the old style musicals that he grew up watching. After seeing some promise, Gavin suggests teaming up with Jeremiah to get the script into producer’s hands. At first it looks like Gavin is manipulating the seemingly simple Jeremiah, but twists abound as the story races to the conclusion. On the one hand, the basic premise of a film professor bonding with a student should be right in my wheelhouse and the depiction of a film class was accurate enough, but I couldn’t shake the feeling the whole time that I was watching a student theater piece where someone took “write what you know” too literally. I wish I could say that this felt intentionally ironic, but I doubt that it is or the show has the driest meta-humor that I’ve ever seen.
The show has plenty of strong points, however. The transitions between scenes are handled fluidly with amazing grace and I very much enjoyed the set and lighting design. Conversations between cast and unseen characters were juxtaposed in clever ways, helping to develop the story quickly. I also liked the way that the main plot developments were set against lessons about structural pacing. It was something that could have been a little too on the nose, but it was effective here. Most importantly, I was quite impressed with the theme of impotence that developed over the course of the show. Professor Miller stares at the end of his career and dwells on past triumphs, while Mrs. Miller contemplates all the dreams that she chose not to chase.
There is a sense of bitterness that permeates the show. Professor Miller was a sell out as a screenwriter and was still cast aside by the movie industry. Jeremiah is continually more rewarded for misanthropic behavior by that same industry. Modern movies are referenced and universally treated with scorn, while older films are treated as works of art that modernity has chosen to disregard out of foolishness. The fact that Professor Miller is vindicated for his dislike of modern Hollywood only serves to cement this view as the stance taken by the playwright. Likewise, the set, adorned with vintage movie posters, is a testament to the virtues of classic movies, failing to appreciate the works of modern filmmakers.
While I found a great deal to enjoy in “According to Goldman”, there was too much cynicism present. Coupled with a flawed casting choice in Stephen Drabicki, who looks far too old for the part, the show, while not painful by any means, never lived up to its potential.