Mike's Incredible Indian Adventure
nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
August 15, 2006
"Neil Simon is the William Shakespeare of our time."
That's just one of the stunning opinions Mike Schlitt found himself espousing while touring India in 1999 with an American production of They're Playing Our Song he had directed. Never mind that Schlitt couldn't agree less with the sentiment—his contempt for the show in question borders on pathological. That he said it at all is a mark of the stress, exhaustion, and constant effort of bringing the production to life, and taking it from Los Angeles to the great subcontinent for a producer he'd never met. Did I mention the cast and crew were being paid in cash? Cash in plastic bags delivered by errand boys who bicycled away as soon as the drop was made?
Mike's Incredible Indian Adventure follows both the tradition of introspective monologists such as the late Spalding Gray (the opening, and recurring, image of Schlitt sitting at a table is a strong evocation of Gray) and the theatrical bon vivance of writers like James Kirkwood, whose memoir Diary of a Mad Playwright serves as both a horrifying warning and a dishy laugh riot for those fools who dare to work in the theatre. Suffice it to say that Schlitt's work as writer and actor does not achieve either the giddy heights of the latter nor the exquisite depths of the former. But his presence is warm and funny, his script is amusing, and his story is engaging.
Nancy Keystone directs with a light but sure hand as Schlitt takes the audience through the events that transpired when he agreed at the tender age of 38 (out of a sense of not having succeeded, and yearning desperately to do so before he and his wife are to have children) to direct They're Playing Our Song for a friend of his, who acted as intermediary for an Indian gentleman of much mystery. That the production will bear little resemblance to the original They're Playing Our Song matters little to Schlitt—he agrees to replace the standard chorus of three men and three women with four gorgeous female dancers, and interpolate contemporary pop songs to make the show sexier—as he realizes that he can make a great film about the experience of making the play, and that, for the sake of that film, the worse the show is, the better the movie can be.
What follows is often hilarious. Schlitt has an occasional tendency to work too hard, and as a result there's less nuance to the performance than there could be. But then, the script works best when simply regaling the audience with "Can you believe this happened?" stories, rather than attempting to find depth or create meaning. Ultimately, his challenges come across as mere neuroses writ large. But the fact is that Schlitt really did have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he shares it with grace and humility. Kudos to Schlitt, Keystone, and team for an effervescent 80 minutes.