The subject of reality television wouldn’t seem to have a place in the world of New York theater. One is an artless medium in which people try to sell themselves as celebrities; the other is an ageless art form involving trained professionals collaborating to tell a story. And yet, Cut, Crystal Skillman’s strongly observed new comedy-drama, charts the quest of three young Los Angeles reality television writers for dignity and fulfillment. Drama is drama, it seems, no matter where you find it. Reality television is alternately known as “Unscripted” television, admitting that the true lives documented aren’t necessarily “real.” They are people playing canned versions of themselves. But even the term “unscripted” is inaccurate. Networks hire aspiring writers to find thematic links and build conflict based on the recorded footage of reality stars.
What is so smart about Cut is how Skillman is able to take some very traditional sentiments and merge them with a very current feel so that they never seem trite. And as a result, all three of her characters are instantly recognizable. Danno (Joe Varca) is the story editor of “The Ladies of Malibu,” a fictional look at the fabulous and base lives of some rich SoCal ladies, but he’s an NYU grad who went west with the hopes of becoming an actor. Rene (Nicole Beerman) is the off-camera interviewer, but at one time was a highly-regarded writer. And Colette (Megan Hill), who catalogs the endless hours of “Ladies” footage, really wants to dance.
The three fly into crisis mode when management rejects the original season finale they compile. Now they have just a few hours to cobble together an improved version (Kyle Dixon’s cluttered production office set, coupled with Grant Wilcoxen's smart lighting, is totally believable). Adding to the pressure is a series of individual personal crises afflicting each of these three writers that rivals the material they assemble professionally. Danno carries a torch for Rene and also bears an enormous amount of guilt for abandoning his sister. Rene is in the middle of a divorce, while Colette not only feels overwhelmed by the job, but is also guarding a secret.
There’s an obvious, if artful, irony to this. Danno, Rene and Colette are adept at looking at others' lives to tell a story. They can chart the path of the coulds, woulds, and shoulds for the five women of “Malibu.” But when it comes to examining where their own lives need to go, they each hit a blind spot.
Director Meg Sturiano nimbly stages the show, which is peppered by the three characters’ reality-style confessions to the audience, with aplomb. (The show’s back-and-forth flashback structure does, however, take a little while to get used to). Skillman’s monologues feel so emotionally honest that they are riveting. And the playwright has an equally gifted ear for dialogue. There are carefully measured cadences to the lines delivered by Danno, Rene and Colette, but the scenes feel realistic, never overly stylized.
This is, of course, also a credit to the cast. Beerman laces her scenes with traces of weariness and regret, suggesting an enormity about the Rene’s journey prior to “Malibu,” and there is an amusing counterbalance between her and Hill’s more frenetic Colette. In particular, Hill digs deepest to show a complex portrait of a woman who has to face some scary adult choices, and yet she never losses Skillman’s sense of humor. One monologue regarding mail-order pills is riotous.
Varca is a solid actor, but eventually some of Danno’s hemming and hawing does feel repetitive. It’s terrible to say, but I found myself wishing that the character wasn’t such a “nice” guy. Danno could benefit from some more darkness, and I would like to have seen Varca get to play him with more edge. Perhaps several more shades of aggressiveness would enhance Danno’s later exchanges with Rene.
That said, Cut remains a smart look at not only reality television’s role in society but also at the changing landscape for show business in general. Talented, hungry writers must increasingly forgo substantial work to take flimsier paying gigs. Here’s hoping that’s a fate that never befalls Skillman.