'Best Available' - The comedy of compromise in Shotgun Players' premiere

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday May 28, 2024
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The cast of 'Best Available' (photo: Ben Krantz)
The cast of 'Best Available' (photo: Ben Krantz)

One of the most frequently mounted shows across the United States in recent years has been "The Play That Goes Wrong," a mechanical slapstick farce in which a production literally falls apart on stage.

Thousands of ticket holders, happy to switch off their intellects and submerge themselves in silliness, laugh aloud from start to finish, demanding no more than a night of escapist entertainment.

It's a tragedy. In fact, it's part of the larger tragedy that gets alchemized into comedy gold in "Best Available," now enjoying a wickedly giddy premiere production by Shotgun Players in Berkeley.

Regina Morones and SarahMitchell in 'Best Available' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

The spoils of playing it safe
This new work from ace Bay Area satirist Jonathan Spector, whose vaccine-focused "Eureka Day," premiered at the Aurora Theatre in 2018 and will open on Broadway this fall, could well have been titled "The Theater That Goes Wrong."

It satirizes the self-destructive institutional apparatus of non-profit American regional theater by chronicling an emblematic City Rep's search for a new creative leader following the scandal-tainted ouster of the white male artistic director who'd been at the helm for decades.

Spector makes plain the fiscal, sociopolitical and artistic conflicts that lead to companies programming seasons composed of riskless Nerf Ball work like "The Play That Goes Wrong" (Spector posits that the ultimate crowd-pleaser/board-appeaser might be a jukebox musical built around old TV theme songs), flaccid social justice tone poems aimed at "reaching new audiences," and overdone snoozery, be it Stoppard or Shaw.

Backstage dramas have been a theatrical staple for ages, but Spector (who clearly knows of what he writes) pokes his beak deeper into the sausage factory (Meat pie shop?) than we're used to, flying beyond the wings to give us a carrion bird's eye view of boardrooms, donors' dens, and customer service switchboards where appeasal regularly trumps art.

Sketchy motivations
The sickly sweet decay of rampant egomania, pressured compromise, and well-intentioned cluelessness wafts from the stage throughout "Best Available," gleefully fanned by director Jon Tracy's cast of eight crackling comic actors.

Steve Price and Dave Maier deliver perfectly dovetailed duets as fatuous high-priced search consultants, more concerned with harmony and happy talk than tough decision-making (Price is also priceless in his second role, the Rep's Kennebunk-accented billionaire board president).

Denise Tyrell is a deceptively diplomatic doyenne benefactor who delivers a masterstroke of racist condescension from beyond the grave. (Projection and sound designer Ben Euphrat nails the glitchy integration of videoconferencing in contemporary workplaces).

Linda Maria Giron and Dave Maier in 'Best Available' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

In a stroke of conceptual genius, Spector has rendered the theater's plebeian class — wincingly naïve artistic apprentices who do double-duty as box office workers — as a black clad Greek chorus.

Austine De Los Santos, Storm White, and Linda Maria Giron, bring fine-etched specificity to this troika as well as several additional characters, demonstrating impressive comedy skills while also providing some of the play's rare moments of pathos.

The play's most challenging roles are those of the job search's leading candidate, Maya, played by Regina Morones, who like the box office trio, brings touches of emotional relatability to a show that's more about wit than warmth; and the Rep's general manager, Helen, played with delicious brittle efficiency by Sarah Mitchell.

There's a bit of a strain between the subtle and strangely well-intentioned double-crossing that goes on between these two ambitious women —potentially the stuff of a more complex psychological drama— and the hard-charging sketch comedy pace of Spector's script and Tracy's direction.

"Best Available" offers no summary lessons about how to keep contemporary American theater from going wrong, but it sheds valuable light with a welcome lightness of tone. The play touches on challenging relationships between art and the marketplace, conservatism and canon, youthful idealism and institutional order.

But as Spector flips through this catalog of problems worth pondering, he also elbows us in the ribs, reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously as we do so.

Theater needn't be self-righteous. And funny needn't be empty.

'Best Available,' through June 16. $24-$36. Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkley. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org

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