Motivated by myriad reasons, many a playwright dreams of having his magnum opus performed on a Broadway stage, but how does he achieve that goal? Enter Kyle Sugarman, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Fort Collins, Colorado. His manuscript looks more like a telephone book than a script for a play, but he writes letters to “Broadway” (as though it were a person) asking him to please produce his play entitled, Spacebar. We soon find out that his title refers to a bar in outer space in the distant future, not part of a computer’s keyboard. Such is the premise of Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman by Michael Mitnick.
Prior to publication, the work debuted at NYC’s Studio 42 in 2010 (a theater widely known for presenting “unproducible” works). It later made a few appearances in a full-length, new works rotation at the Source Festival in Washington DC in 2011 around the time the script was published. City Lights Theater Company has the honor of hosting its world premiere commercial run which celebrated its gala opening on Saturday, 1 June 2013.
Presented as a play within a play, we follow both Kyle’s obsession with getting his play into production, and the plot of the play he has written. We eventually learn the reasons for Kyle’s obsession, though in reality his play could never be produced anywhere. Mitnick tries to cover a lot of ground, and he mostly succeeds, although the shtick is sometimes more drawn out than necessary. With the exception of a brilliant opening monologue and a few short scenes with Kyle and his girlfriend, the rest of the first act focuses on Kyle’s letters to Broadway with some live action backing him up. Act 2 moves to a current, though distorted, real world setting, where a sleazy producer/director manipulates the wide-eyed Kyle.
On the page, the play seems to have the potential to either be quite entertaining or very bad. Happily, City Lights achieves the former with this humorous, satirical, and at times, poignant play, in spite of some shortcomings in the writing.
Director Lisa Mallette faced some challenges given the stage directions as scripted, but she makes excellent use of the space to create the desired effects, albeit sometimes in a different manner given there’s no fly space available. The scene changes, often executed by cast members, are smooth. The atmosphere is aided by George Psarras’ sound design and original music, Nick Kumamoto’s lighting design, and Ron Gasparinetti’s set design.
Gasparinetti’s set is simple, yet functional, providing physical separation between the elements of Kyle’s personal story and the story he narrates. The bar in Kyle’s play sits behind a sliding panel stage right, and a bridge connects it to a rotating platform stage left that allows for quick scene changes. Center stage is sparse with a screen behind the bridge allowing for various backgrounds to be incorporated as the setting changes.
Psarras’ original music for this production goes a long way in setting the mood, employing electronic sounds reminiscent of space-themed video games for Kyle’s play. Erin Haney’s costume design utilizing a space-age version of “Colonial Williamsburg” attire provides additional texture supporting Kyle’s storytelling in Act 1.
Jeff Kramer plays a variety of roles, both in the real world and in the play within the play. He opens the show as Kyle’s father, Alan, trying to give Kyle some bad news and some life advice. His opening monologue is gripping. Some of it is highly amusing, while other parts drip with the pain of experience as he struggles with the bad news he’s trying to relay. The next time we see Kramer, he’s Captain Iditarod, the protagonist in Kyle’s play, though that character reads like Cliff Clavin from the TV show Cheers.
Jeremy Helgeson captures Kyle beautifully. He plays a believable 16-year-old, drawing on his physical attributes being rather lanky, and delivering his lines smoothly. Many of his monologues are difficult given the intentional misuse of language. He makes these sound natural as a teenager injecting jargon to impress “Broadway” as he narrates his play through his letters. Helgeson’s mannerisms also nail the demeanor of the adolescent he portrays. While he spends the bulk of the play explaining what he’s thinking to us, he shifts very believably into his direct interactions with Fancy Magee (Psarras) the producer/director of his play and with Jessica (Adrienne Walters), his girlfriend.
Though Walters is a bit tentative at first, Helgeson’s enthusiasm makes them work as a couple. Psarras, on the other hand, is intentionally over the top playing two strictly comedic (and lecherous) roles. Both of his characters are written single-dimensionally and without subtlety, but Psarras is very funny. Kramer comes back in a third major role in Act 2 and provides some balance to Psarras’ manic Magee.
Keith C. Marshall plays a variety of roles both in the real world and in the play. He relies heavily on physical humor and shows up in a few surprising places. His Mortimer Pip is crass and a complete caricature, while his Cabbie is more subtle and mostly believable.
Morgan Voellger plays the love interest in the play portraying Esmerelda Happenstance both while Kyle narrates the story and as the actor in the role while the off Broadway rehearsals run. She too uses a lot of physical comedy. In Act 1, she’s got some difficult moves given her costuming as a cyborg, and she makes it look easy.
While the story is a bit uneven and the serious portion of the plotline doesn’t have time to develop fully, this production had the audience laughing out loud on opening night providing an interesting evening’s entertainment.
What: Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman by Michael Mitnick
Where: City Lights Theater Company located at: 529 South Second Street, San Jose, CA 95112.
When: Thursdays – Sundays through 23 June.
See cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 for more information.
(Photo credit: Tasi Alabastro)