Playwright Neil LaBute has a history of creating characters prone to nastiness. In plays like “Fat Pig,” “In the Company of Men” and “reasons to be pretty," everyday people are darn mean to one another, and that’s earned him a reputation as a misanthrope.
In the past, the poisonous insults so associated with LaBute’s work have been met with a sense of unease. It’s hard to see people use other people for such despicable and cruel purposes. But as it turns out, the harshness becomes a much easier pill to swallow when the characters themselves are ripe for mocking.
Such is the case in “The Money Shot,” LaBute’s newest biting comedy, with direction from Terry Kinney, now playing at MCC Theater’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. Here, LaBute tackles Hollywood, celebrity and the extreme lengths actors will go to stay relevant in an industry where you’re only as good as your last project. The results? A hilarious must-see play with some great performances.
Fred Weller (“Mothers and Sons”) and Elizabeth Reaser (“The Twilight Saga”) play Steve and Karen, two aging movie stars with lead roles in a new film by a hot-shot European director. Said film features a risqué sex scene, so Steve and Karen meet together with their other halves at Karen’s home in the Hollywood Hills to discuss boundaries.
Steve’s aspiring-actress trophy wife Missy (Gia Crovatin, a LaBute vet) has nearly no reservations about seeing her spouse in the intimate scene. But Karen’s tough-as-nails partner Bev (Callie Thorne, of TV’s “Necessary Roughness”), a film editor, comes with some major concerns. The fun comes from watching the four get to know one another as they wrestle with their options and the (unexpected) outcome.
Much of the conflict in “The Money Shot” is driven by Bev, who has never met a battle she didn’t want to fight. Bev is a pushy, argumentative bully, but Thorne gives her a grounded, confident presence throughout. She’s the voice of reason, and New Yorkers will be on her side as she lashes out against the vapid Hollywood world. (It’s never stated, but I’d wager Bev is originally from the East Coast).
In Steve, Bev meets a willing (though unworthy) partner, who talks with prideful certainty despite having to look up almost everything he says later on his iPhone. Weller gives Steve just the right blend of stupidity and charm, and without naming names, he’ll likely remind you of a Hollywood A-lister or two.
The ditzy Missy is a character who could very easily go the stereotypical dumb blonde route if it weren’t for Crovatin, whose inspired delivery makes us feel that Missy’s in on the joke. And while given the least to say out of the four, Crovatin still finds ways to keep us laughing through well-placed physical comedy and scene-stealing background work.
But the real star of the show is Reaser, who delivers one of the greatest comedic performances I’ve seen on stage in years. Her Karen moves from bragging about her latest endorsement deal to screaming her head off at the traffic on the 101 to laughing about herself, all within minutes. It’s a delicate dance of manic emotions, and one that Reaser orchestrates flawlessly.
Watching Reaser’s Karen, I was reminded most of the sort of deluded and assured characters Amy Poehler often played during her time on “Saturday Night Live.” Reaser’s just as committed to the overly dramatic nature of her character as Poehler would be, but she’s able to give Karen more layers than we’d see in an “SNL” skit.
To my surprise, LaBute has embedded universal themes within “The Money Shot” that resonate beyond his surface-level attack of the Hollywood lifestyle like the relationship struggles that occur when one partner is more financially successful than the other, and the pressures one feels when living a life driven by fear of failure.
Yes, many of the characters reveal their true selves through horrible behavior. This is a LaBute play, after all. But what’s different here is that they’re not abusing one another for manipulation, revenge or dominance. They just trying to survive each other.
“The Money Shot” marks Neil LaBute’s ninth collaboration with MCC Theater as their playwright-in-residence. It’ll leave you looking forward to the tenth.
“The Money Shot” through Oct. 12 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Tickets: $69-$125. Call 212-352-3101, or visit www.mcctheater.org.