ROAD TO NIRVANA Theatre Review
Tinseltown has been referred to as the “boulevard of broken dreams” and the Harold Clurman Lab Theater’s gripping production of Arthur Kopit’s 1991 play Road to Nirvana is about wannabe Hollywood boulevardiers and the mind-boggling lengths they’ll go to in order to make their film fantasies come true. The splendid ensemble, expertly directed by Don K. Williams, includes Nicholas Bonanno as Al, a onetime Hollywood hot shot dreaming of a comeback.
To do so, Al seeks to reunite with his former producing partner, Jerry (Sean Spann), who has fallen on leaner times since Al stabbed him in the back, way back during their halcyon studio days. Aided by Lou (Maya Ferrara, who - looking like a cross between an Amazon and Wagnerian valkyrie - first appears topless in languid repose poolside), the scheming couple make - as Stella Adler’s most famous acting acolyte put it in The Godfather - Jerry an offer can’t refuse.
Their odyssey to return to the big time propels these Hollywood Argonauts on the eponymous road to Nirvana (no, not to Kurt Cobain’s home, although the play’s title does make a clever twist on the meaning of this heavenly Buddhist transcendental state of being, where one surpasses all desire). Suffice it to say that the road of this latter day Bob, Bing and Dot leads not to Morocco or Singapore but to a glamorous glitter goddess (Australian Lucy Green). Al, Lou and Jerry’s ticket to the big time depends on the erratic whims of this madcap cross between Norma Desmond and Madonna in her heyday.
The crux of the play is, in pursuit of their La-La-Land reveries, how low will they go? Will they crawl through the mud - and worse - in order to grab that fabled brass ring? This is especially true with Jerry - when the would-be comeback kid finds out exactly what the bankable superstar will exact from him in order to green light the trio’s project, he initially recoils in horror. Although it’s not precisely a pound of flesh per se, her demand should make viewers ponder: What price gory?
Although they are huge motivators for Al, Jerry and Lou, Kopit’s theme goes beyond a mere mania for money, success and stature in the realm of Hollywood Babylon. Indeed, with the play’s repeat references to Herman Melville and the Great American Novel, the trio aspires to the loftiest ambition the dream factory can manufacture: A movie masterpiece that will not only cement their footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but will forever secure their place in the constellation of cinematic stars as true La-La-Land legends, their names forever seared in the movie-going public’s minds, along with those other screen immortals who have touched the soul of mankind. This career and artistic aspiration is, so to speak, the threesome’s great white whale.
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Kopit’s play is no copout. Road to Nirvana is a scathing parody, critique and cautionary tale that everyone who has endeavored to trod down this path and is enamored of Tinseltown’s bright lights should see. This is also a play for those who relish the sheer joy of watching acting that is worthy of this theatrical venue’s noble Stella Adler pedigree. The set - which actually includes a swimming pool of sorts! - is inventively designed by Johnny Yoder, who also co-produced.
My one admonition is that although he is given credit in the playbill, there is no write-up per se in it regarding Arthur Kopit - you know, the guy who came up with Nirvana’s plot and the dialogue that comes out of their mouths. Kopit is an accomplished playwright whose work includes 1969’s Indians and 1992’s Phantom. A decade prior to writing Nirvana Kopit focused his attention on the filmmaking world with Nine, his stage adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8½. Without the bard, Nirvana’s thesps would, at best, ad lib for two acts on stage, or worse, remain speechless for about two hours. I guess overlooking the scribbler is par for the course for an outfit called the Art of ACTING Studio - but if it was titled the Art of WRITING Studio, I doubt this would be the case.
Be that as it may, this is just a mere quibble. Serious theatergoers, lovers of fine drama and Hollywood dreamers should get on down the Road to Nirvana in order to attain some theatrical enlightenment.
The Harold Clurman Lab Theater is presenting Road to Nirvana on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. through Oct. 15, just off Theatre Row at the Art of Acting Studio, 1017 N. Orange Drive, L.A., CA 90038. Free parking. For more information: (323)601-5310; https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/962760; www.artofactingstudio.com.