It’s always dangerous to write about your own life, especially when you have a desire to give all the characters (you, your loved ones and your friends) a positive gloss.
This is what playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa does in Based on a Totally True Story, now at convergence-continuum. The central character, Ethan, is just like the playwright: a comic book writer and playwright who is in a gay romantic relationship. He is also dealing with a crisis between his parents, and has a deal brewing for a film of his work in Hollywood.
So, yes, the title appears to be accurate. Trouble is, as a true story it’s not a particularly interesting, insightful or surprising one. The play is also saddled with structural difficulties (lots of phone conversations, lots of narration and exposition delivered direct to the audience) that director Cory Molner can’t fully overcome.
Set on a brightly-colored Sunday comics stage, nerd-geek Ethan is working on a dark play involving a sea monster and two dead children (a play, by the way, that sounds a good deal more engrossing than the one at hand). He’s also holding down a day job writing stories for “The Flash,” a speedy comic book superhero.
But his life changes when he and his soon-to-be-boyfriend Michael meet cute in a coffee shop, after Michael lands in the wrong java joint for a blind date. Soon they are doing all sorts of adorably cute New York-ish things like going to see a 1950’s French horror movie and sipping coffee at Barnes & Noble. Then they move in together.
Meanwhile a producer in Hollywood, Mary Ellen, is on the horn with Ethan pushing him to make goofy changes to his play so she can sell it to a film company. And then Ethan has to deal with his father, who announces he’s fallen out of love with Ethan’s mother and is seeing another woman.
On the surface, all this sounds promising. But the script almost defiantly refuses to make any of these scenarios distinctive. Mary Ellen’s intrusion on a writer's creative process is a LaLa Land trope we’ve seen played out dozens times, and done much funnier. As Mary Ellen, an overly stiff Lisa Wiley never captures the smooth, oleaginous Entourage-style vibe of the hard-charging flick pusher with a heart of gold.
As Ethan’s dad, Clyde Simon trots out a befuddled gruffness that works for a while, but the character is so nice one never gets a read on the challenging childhood Ethan claims to have had.
Bobby Coyne plays several small roles and shines as Tyler, Ethan’s energetic comic book editor. But his quick cameos as an Apple store flunky and a video store clerk are overwrought and weird instead of amusing. And his turn as a blond hunk who seduces Ethan on a California beach is too obvious to be sexy.
The central relationship is portrayed with skill by Zac Hudak, always a superb dweeb, as Ethan, and a sweet and sincere Stuart Hoffman as Michael. But it’s a tepid affair with chaste kisses, quick hugs and little emotional depth. Even when there is some tension around Ethan’s blossoming career, the friction generates no real sparks, just some damp fizzles.
Agurre-Sacasa crafts a number of effective laugh lines, at one point referring to the company that Ethan works for as owned by a series of corporate entities controlled by Satan. But his play collapses at the end in a welter of aphorisms as the characters sit on stage and provide individual epilogues about how they’ve grown.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this totally true story, which takes place over about 24 months, is that Ethan (and the author) had a totally nice two years, with some totally nice relationships that, even when they ended, turned out totally nice with everyone still friends.
That’s nice. And true. But theatrically, it’s not very good.
Based on a Totally True Story
Through September 14, produced by convergence-continuum at the Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Tremont, 216-687-0074.