By Aaron Krause
Picture yourself almost continuously laughing while maintaining an iron grip on the novel you are reading. Your eyes have remained wide open for so long that your eyelids feel heavy. But you force them to remain fully open. And you continue to clutch the book until your knuckles whiten and hurt; you dare not miss an instant of the riveting, hilarious story full of surprises in front of you.
Now you have an idea of what it is like to experience Plays of Wilton and Ronnie Larsen Presents’ the not to be missed co-production of Michael McKeever’s furiously funny, unapologetically shameless pitch-black comedy, Clark Gable Slept Here, which runs through Oct. 15 within the intimate confines of The Foundry in Wilton Manors.
Perhaps you have experienced a production of Clark Gable Slept Here in South Florida. Specifically, Main Street Players in Miami Lakes mounted one in early 2018. Before that, Zoetic Stage in downtown Miami presented the world premiere production of the taut, 90-minute play in 2014.
If you’ve experienced the piece, you know how frequently plot twists pop up and how hard it is to maintain a straight. The delight comes courtesy of McKeever, a prolific, versatile, and award-winning South Florida playwright with a wicked wit and an ability to write poignantly.
McKeever has written more than 30 full-length comedies and dramas that have been presented in productions throughout South Florida, as well as across the country and internationally. His subjects have included hate crimes, a hurricane, bullying, Hollywood secrets, artists, gay marriage, grief, and hoarding.
Under Stuart Meltzer’s expert direction, an impressive cast of five actors and an equally skilled crew of backstage artists triumph in the current co-production of Clark Gable Slept Here. The piece takes place in the ruthless playland known as Hollywood, Calif. As McKeever vividly and unabashedly demonstrates, some in Tinseltown are heartless, full of hubris, and in short supply of humanity.
As this critic noted in a review of Main Street Players’ production, perhaps you’ll feel the need to cleanse yourself spiritually from the slime, filth, and inhumanity emanating from the world on stage. It’s a familiar world, one in which values such as empathy and compassion take a back seat to status.
Clark Gable Slept Here takes place during the present on the night of the Golden Globes. We’re in a luxurious, spacious penthouse suite in the elegant, renown Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in L.A.
The room’s occupant, Patrick Zane, is one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, a character whom we never see, but hear via voiceover. The celluloid star’s specialty is action movies. On this night, he is up for a Golden Globe “Best Actor” award, and he has a secret to reveal.
It looks like a big, celebratory night is ahead for the performer, his family, and fans. However, a problem exists. Specifically, a maid has discovered a male prostitute’s corpse in the suite she has come to clean. With image and reputation at stake, the movie star’s publicity team will do whatever it takes to keep the night running smoothly. But secrets tend to spill fast. Will the team be able to keep it all hush-hush?
At least the movie star’s manager/agent, Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard, has a Hollywood “fixer” to whom he can turn. Such an individual’s job is to keep a lid on the undesirable details of stars’ private lives. Again, image, status, and symbol are everything here. Indeed, they are more important than someone’s feelings.
The unexpected comes at you with cheetah-like speed in this play. Pretty soon, you don’t know what is true and what is false, or who is whom. You wonder from which direction the next surprise will come.
While Clark Gable Slept Here is a funny, tightly-written farce-like comedy, it is also meaty and thought-provoking. The play opens our eyes to how Hollywood makes us view movie stars as legends and products. “Ordinary” citizens often don’t view movie stars as flesh and blood human beings with wants and needs.
“Patrick Zane is not a human being,” Hilliard says. “Patrick Zane is a multinational enterprise. He is a billion-dollar industry that impacts the lives of thousands of people. A billion-dollar industry that has been carefully and methodically cultivated over the past two decades until it was honed into the well-run, well-respected, possibly award-winning brand that it is tonight.”
Meanwhile, Zane says: “You see, I hid behind a façade for so many years. And it is with enormous relief and huge gratitude to one incredibly special person that I reveal myself for what I really am.”
The production’s program does not list the actor who speaks during the voiceover when Zane is talking.
McKeever not only wrote the play, but stars in this production. He portrays Hilliard with believable nervous energy, impatience, exasperation, and an intense determination to solve the mystery of the corpse in the hotel suite. Also, his face and voice drip sarcasm.
In contrast to McKeever’s nervous, fiery Hilliard, Tom Wahl injects hotel manager Gage Hollard with obvious concern, but also polish and restraint, at least in the beginning. After all, the Chateau Marmont Hotel is a respectable establishment, and Hollard represents the hotel. Unsurprisingly, he wants to project an aura of politeness and class. But as the play progresses, and the situation becomes more tense and uncertain, Wahl transitions into a palpably uptight individual who can become as heated as the others. Through Wahl’s measured performance, the change in Hollard occurs gradually, practically unnoticeably.
As “fixer” Morgan Wright, Lela Elam imbues her character with elegance, confidence, and an intensity that dares anyone to cross her. Do so at your own risk, Elam’s sometimes ferocious Wright seems to dare those thinking about getting on her bad side. In the role, Elam shines like the sparkling jewelry she sports as part of the appropriately upscale costumes (the program does not list the designer).
Another star in this cast is Emma Garcia Seeger. She injects the maid, Estella, with contagious energy and a melodramatic air without forcing anything. Seeger also lends Estella a wariness that suggests that this housekeeper is uncomfortable in front of characters such as Hilliard, Wirght, and Holland.
Revealing the character Jeff Brackett portrays would give too much away. Let’s just say that in a triumphant performance, Brackett conveys defiance and flamboyance, while trying to maintain a shred of dignity.
The performers deftly mix subtlety with bigger acting choices to create believable, recognizable, if not always sympathetic characters.
Playwright/actor McKeever does triple duty—he also designed the set, which lighting designer Preston Bircher illuminates realistically.
The scenic design is fittingly spacious and upscale, befitting a luxurious hotel. Colors such as grey and white and a dark hue and props such as a liquor tray reinforce a formal ambience. The place’s luxuriousness looks befitting for stars such as Gable, the famous actor who once stayed in the suite.
Meltzer, who effectively designed the sound, is a well-respected, award-winning director. Here, he helps the cast achieve deft comic timing and varies the production’s pace. At times, it is fast, but Meltzer leaves room for quieter, calmer moments to creative variety. Under Meltzer’s direction, the tension is palpable. At times, actors almost come nose to nose as though they are about to fight.
Often, before a Plays of Wilton/Ronnie Larsen Presents production, you will find Larsen, an award-winning, widely-known theater artist, chatting with audience members and offering them refreshments such as wine. There’s an unmistakable aura of celebration. For this production, and others Larsen and Co. have given us, an air of celebration is appropriate – they are unequivocal triumphs.
Plays of Wilton and Ronnie Larsen Presents’ production of Clark Gable Slept Here runs through Oct. 15 at The Foundry, 2306 Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. Running time is approximately 90 minutes. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.playsofwilton.com.