"Geniuses" is a satire of a group of maniacal filmmakers on location in the Philippines. They are 28 days behind schedule on "Parabola of Death," a multimillion-dollar epic about the war in Angola, and have approximately 10 minutes of film in the can to show for three months of collective temperament.
They are edgy, frustrated and, if not bonkers to begin with, fast becoming so.
That's when the typhoon strikes, throwing them all together in a bungalow, with beer and stewed dog for nourishment and the steady drip of rain through the roof to exacerbate their already nasty dispositions. Very quickly, they get on one another's nerves. They also got on mine.
Although a considerable off-Broadway success last season, Jonathan Reynolds' comedy seems a decidedly unpleasant affair at Arena Stage, where it began a five-week run last night. It was apparently inspired by the three months that Reynolds spent in the Philippines, laboring on Fracis Ford Coppola's budget-buster about the Vietnam war, "Apocalypse Now." So, presumably, Reynolds knows whereof he speaks. Still, the accuracy of his black and blue observations on the wiles of Hollywood's Wunderkinder and the ways of their craven minions go only so far.
Rarely have I cared less about a group of characters on a stage -- or any place else, for that matter. While "Geniuses" inspires a fair amount of laughter, the laughter is mean-spirited and without generosity. Though it may be argued that this group of self-absorbed creatures deserves no charity, it can also be said that 2 1/2 hours is a long time to watch a flailing.
It's not just that the characters keep pummeling one another psychologically. Nor is it merely that the blond bimbo and former Playboy centerfold, flown for a 10 second breast-bearing cameo in the film, actually gets pounded to a bloody pulp late one night by the sadistic art director. The playwright himself seems to be punching his characters repeatedly. He knows what makes them petty and possessed, and in scene after scene goes right to their moral and intellectual failings. But he never penetrates their hearts. Perhaps they don't have any.
So they fume and fight. They get drunk. They get dysentery. They argue about the relative merits and demerits of New York versus Los Angeles. They compose off-color limericks and complain about the natives. Jocko (Dan Strickler), the latest in a string of writers hired to come up with a suitable ending for the film, feeds a ream of paper into his portable typewriter, pecks out a line or two, then promptly loses inspiration. Eugene (Dan Desmond), the unsavory art director, frets over the fate of his sets, sinking in the storm. Bart (Joe Palmieri), the makeup man who specializes in scars and gashes -- his nickname is "Mr. Wound" -- finds his admiration for Papa Hemingway turning into identification. A cook and bodyguard (Joey Ginza) dashes around, preparing sickening platters and shooting off his pistol.
The men lust after Skye (Linda Lee Johnson), the voluptuous centerfold, but they constantly put her down intellectually, which is akin to putting down a 5-year-old and therefor not much of a contest. Then, the typhoon passes and in the last act, the iconoclastic director (Charles Janasz) descends on a sling from a helicopter to sort out the ravages and get his movie rolling again.
If there is any comeuppance in this tale of celluloid concupiscence, it falls to Skye to exact it. Beaten nearly senseless, she subsequently discovers how to take revenge on the art director and parlay her bruises and contusions into big bucks, a new career opportunity and maybe a romance with the failed writer. It's akin to blackmail, but under the circumstances, you can understand, if not exactly cheer, her tactics.
At least two directorial approaches present themselves here. It would be possible, I suspect, to play against the sardonic grain, thereby making "Geniuses" less unsavory and its characters less morally bankrupt. The other option would be to plunge into the blackness, take the play's incipient ferociousness to the outer limits and simply carve up every soul in sight.
Unfortunately, Arena's production, directed by Gary Pearle, steers an unrewarding middle course through the morass. There is not a hint of pathos and the satire stops well this side of scathing. The Arena actors are not unaccomplished, but outside of Johnson, who projects some vulnerability, it is impossible to cozy up to them. Also, as things stand, merely laughing fitfully at them proves tiring in the long run.
What does work is the typhoon that brings Act One to a close: First, a distant hum building to a roar; then a few ominous droplets on the palm trees; and finally, a virtual sheet of rain enclosing the four-sided stage. The characters, if we didn't know it already, are suddenly imprisoned. In the bungalow. In their sour selves. Set designer Tony Straiges, at least, has done his job well. The most impressive aspect of "Geniuses" is the rotten weather.