Lawrence Toppman

‘The Money Shot:’ First you laugh, then you wince

Hollywood couples (Michelle Fleshman on the left, Karen Christensen on the right, Iesha Nyree and J.R. Adduci) realize dialogue doesn’t settle all disputes in “The Money Shot.”
Hollywood couples (Michelle Fleshman on the left, Karen Christensen on the right, Iesha Nyree and J.R. Adduci) realize dialogue doesn’t settle all disputes in “The Money Shot.” George Hendricks Photography

Has Neil LaBute ever written a sympathetic character, when he wasn’t adapting another author’s work? I have seen four of his plays and five of his films, and I have never encountered one yet.

They belittle each other, humiliate themselves, spew vitriol at the world in general. He writes entertainingly, but what should we take away? When Shakespeare said “What fools these mortals be,” he spoke with bemused tolerance. LaBute says it with contempt.

He’s on home ground with “The Money Shot,” which opens Queen City Theatre Company’s ninth season. His anger at Hollywood, where this is set, can well be understood: He hasn’t written or directed a movie since 2003 (“The Shape of Things”) that received wide critical praise or appealed to audiences.

All four characters in this 2014 play have roots in the industry. Steve (J.R. Adduci), an action hero whose “Pain Merchant” series has tapped out, wants to reinvent himself in a similar role. A European director has agreed to guide him, but only if he and co-star Karen (Michelle Fleshman) agree to have actual sex onscreen. (Hence the play’s title, which refers to the moment of...er...maximum release in porn films.)

Karen’s career has tailed off since she came out of the closet and moved in with editor Bev (Iesha Nyree), so she’s willing. The three of them come together with Steve’s trophy wife, Missy (Karen Christensen), ostensibly to discuss what will be permissible in the cinematic bed – but really to vent nonstop.

Steve’s a homophobe, a sexist, a boor and a control freak. Narcissistic, petty Karen goes to absurd lengths to shore up her self-image. Missy has the I.Q. of a sparrow: After someone yells “Jesus H. Christ!,” she asks, “What does the ‘H’ stand for in Jesus’ name?”

Well-educated, hard-working (and probably underpaid) Bev might seem to be the most appealing person, but she’s strident, insecure, touchy and happy to show others up. She’s the smartest rat in LaBute’s maze, but she’s still a rat.

Director Glenn Griffin finds all the laughs in this play – and there are laughs, mostly cruel ones – and leaves us with the hollow feeling I’m pretty sure LaBute wants to induce. Adduci and Nyree are most at home in their characters’ skins; Christensen and Fleshman try too hard at the start to come off as dopey and neurotic, though they eventually settle down.

I expect LaBute modeled this quartet on people he knows in the industry, maybe everyone he has ever met there. Perhaps the title says it all: Anyone who hopes to be a financial success in the movie business will be spattered up to the chin with the meanness, double-dealing and egomania that pervades it.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Money Shot’

WHEN: Through Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

WHERE: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes, no intermission.

TICKETS: $25.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000, www.queencitytheatre.com or blumenthalarts.org.

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