Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


It's fitting that Based on a Totally True Story was a late entry on the Who Wants Cake? schedule; the script's structure is sometimes reminiscent of a placeholder. Everything from the "based on" of the title to the unassuming candor of the narrative suggests that this is not so much a play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, but a between-plays struggle with some personal demons, a writing exercise that turned out too good to discard.

Despite that description evoking some self-indulgent drama class exercise, director Joe Bailey's staging is pleasantly surprising in its frequent effectiveness. The story revolves around The Flash comic writer and playwright Ethan Keene (Vince Kelly), who weathers unbelievable success and personal anguish in parallel, and explains the unfolding events while clearly reticent to sort out to what extent each influenced the other. The role does not command the stage; instead, Kelly is enchantingly humble even as he plays notes of discomfort and anxiety, manifesting little tics that blossom into hilarious deliveries, but always with an undercurrent of regret — it's his story, but perhaps he wishes parts of it weren't.

Three major relationships of Ethan's evolve during the course of the play: his romantic life is represented by boyfriend Michael (Jeff Bobick); family is summed up in his newly divorcing father (Dan Morrison); and opportunity calls — often — in the form of a Hollywood producer (Dyan Bailey). When he is encouraged to adapt one of his plays into a film, Ethan becomes overworked and completely self-obsessed, eventually pushing Michael to the breaking point. Together, Kelly and Bobick show an affecting relationship that pays off most as it is ending; they are absolutely successful at conveying dual loss upon realizing that their damaged love is in fact irreparable. Morrison begins as simply a nuisance, and Kelly's irritation with him is abrupt and a bit grating, but these characters come to a touching understanding that's needed by play's end, when Ethan's unprecedented successes are dismal without Michael. With a powerful enthusiasm that deftly switches from highest praise to meddling criticism, Bailey works well within her character's quickly established pattern: her delivery draws recurring laughs from familiar platitudes. The remaining characters are all played by Geoffrey Pearson; two were so small as to cast doubt on their necessity, but the juxtaposition of his exaggerated straight-guy editor with a brief, but electric, appearance as a sunbathing casting-couch actor eclipsed the duller walk-ons.

Joe Bailey and Jamie Richards's white/red/yellow/blue set pieces, and backdrop adorned with speech balloons, pleasantly recalled a Lichtenstein painting before I realized — in an enormous duh moment — the influence of Ethan's comic book writing. The set seems a better fit for the script than Joe Plambeck's sound design, which has to its credit some great ringtone cues, but to its detriment some faint and distracting ambient noises. The attempts to inject realism into a time-jumping, quickly paced amalgamation of scenes are jarring in this comic-paneled world, and the production is most successful when specific settings and times are secondary to the flow of narration and interaction. This is a fresh and intimate take on a first-person narrative, stripped down to a real person sorting through highs and lows in order to move forward, warts and all, to the next stage.


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