Roars of the Greasepaint

Inventing Avi (and other theatrical maneuvers) is yet another comedy revolving around theater people and how egotistical and ruthless and wacky they can be. The authors, Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman, try to avoid sitcom humor with some success: a lot of the play draws more from the archetypes, old gags, disguises and switched identities of comedies by Plautus and Terence, including a final surprise . Ultimately, though, the elements don’t come together as smoothly as they should. The story is narrated by David Smith (Stanley Bahorek), a playwright and self-described “run-of-the-mill boy from Denver” who works for a producer, Judy Siff (Alix Korey), as an assistant. David, as he advises the audience, “sometimes...has trouble with structure.” He hops around in modern flashbacks, from the moment his play Inventing Avi is being honored, back to his early days working for Judy, to her teenage years, filled with sibling rivalry.

Working as Judy’s assistant, David can’t persuade her to take a look at his new play about people who deny the Holocaust occurred. He’d like her to produce it, but she’s having trouble with her current offering, Electrifying Ethel, a play about the Rosenberg trials “told through the lens of musical comedy.” The estimable Korey lends her sharp comic timing to a double stereotype: the dumb blonde and the inept producer (Judy makes Max Bialystock look like David Belasco and gets the full quotient of laughs from the many funny lines.

When David meets Amy, a Kinko’s copy girl (Havilah Brewster), she recognizes his name from having copied his script called Six Million Lies, about those who deny the Holocaust occurred. As it happens, she’s also an actress. She and her scene partner, Ben, are working on Top Dog/Underdog. (The comedy is rife with theatrical “in” jokes.) In a far-fetched coincidence, Amy also happens to be an assistant to Judy’s long-estranged sister Mimi Rose, a daytime soap opera star, who sits on the board of a foundation that hands out money to Jewish playwrights. Amy resolves to help David in return for a part. As for Ben (Juri Henley-Cohn), he’s going to be the stand-in for David, an Israeli named Avi Aviv, in order to get the foundation’s grant.

The authors wring a lot of humor from political correctness, and manage to have it both ways: “I am a great supporter of Latina writers, many of whom are unwed mothers or in prison,” says Judy, simultaneously demonstrating humanism and innate prejudice. Thankfully, Korey’s Judy is likable because she’s so earnestly dumb yet essentially decent. Mimi Rose, as played by Emily Zacharias, is less manic but more of a monster, and in Mimi’s exchanges with her maid Astrud (an acidly deadpan Lori Gardner, right in the mold of the servant who’s smarter than the mistress), the authors deftly build the humor and reveal character, with gag lines topping one another.

“Unlike Judy,” Mimi tells David, “I could have been another Streep, but my career was suddenly derailed by the birth of my child.” “What do you mean, ‘derailed’? asks Astrud. “Your son is adopted.” Mimi: “Alright, Astrud, enough! Look, why don’t you go put away your cot so we can eat in the dining room tonight?”

Occasionally, however, even Mark Waldrop’s production can’t skirt a measure of discomfort in the way the authors use Jewish stereotypes. Perhaps satire is intended as both sisters are determined to de-semitize themselves, but it doesn’t feel like satire (unless it's a general comment on Jews in show business). Judy has bleached her hair and looks like a WASP. Mimi has shortened her surname from Rosenblatt to the neutral “Rose” and had a nose job.

The actors do a creditable job with the material, though the pudding-faced Bahorek is a bit bland as David. Homages to other plays crop up (there’s a shameless steal from The Producers when David mentions a Tony to lure Mimi to his project). The whole is played on Ray Klausen’s set of backdrops and floor projections of David’s script, and platforms that appear to be piles of paper with deckled edges, all given a ghastly pink and purple color scheme by Brian Nason’s lighting. Despite the talent involved, and a good share of one-liners, Inventing Avi feels neither substantial nor fresh.

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