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Rich and Famous

Rich and Famous


A queeny lead actor and a producer desperate for her first failure make for a damn good time in the play-within-a-play classic Rich and Famous.

Bing Ringling never wanted to be "the world's oldest living promising young playwright." The hopeful writer at the center of John Guare's surreal comedy Rich and Famous, now on the main stage at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, is sure that his new play, number 844, will be his breakthrough to success. He's wrong. Blame it on magical cuff links (the letters R and F for "rich and famous") or dismal acting from his queeny lead actor or a legendary producer desperate for her first failure, but Ringling's first produced play falls as flat as the newspaper bundles announcing the flop. "This isn't a review," reads one notice, "it's an obituary."

As usual, ACT has assembled an imaginative and boundlessly energetic cast for its production. Tony-nominated Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me) plays only Bing, but his three fellow actors take on multiple roles in a series of skit-like, increasingly fantastic episodes, punctuated by musical numbers also written by Guare. There is no standout among these excellent actors, who manage to become more believable as their characters become weirder.

Mary Birdsong (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me) veers between love and psychosis as Bing's obsessive stage mother and pulls off a Katharine Hepburn impression as Bing's failure-hungry producer. Stephen DeRosa (who played Wilbur Turnblad on Broadway and in the first national tour of Hairspray) shines as the wild-eyed composer Anatol Torah and as Bing's childhood friend Tybalt Dunleavy, now a movie actor of such renown that Norman Mailer has bought the rights to his planned suicide. ACT core acting company member Gregory Wallace, last seen here in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, struts his stuff in hot pants and feathers as Aphro, a rarely hired actor who can usually be found plying his other trade at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Guare (best known for TheHouse of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation) wrote Rich and Famous in three days in 1974, refracting his own experiences in theatre through a lens of absurdity that is not as far from reality as audiences may think. As he explains in the program notes, "It's a landmark in my life of where I was 35 years ago."

Like Bing, Guare once received an opening night telegram (in his case, from Steven Sondheim) reading, "Have a wonderful opening. Your entire future depends on it." The predatory washed-up composer in Rich and Famous is a composite portrait of "three sacred monsters" Guare worked with early in his career: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Joe Papp.

ACT's production, under the spirited direction of John Rando, revives the fashions and psychedelic coloring of the 1970s. It also benefits from Guare's substantial reworking of the script. His pet themes of celebrity and identity remain, but he has punched up the jokes and emphasized the autobiographical elements of the play -- perhaps because his three sacred monsters, very much alive when the play was first produced at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in 1974, are in the land beyond lawsuits and hurt feelings.

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Regina Marler