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CELEBRITY BEAT

Bailiwick Repertory

Call it play therapy. You've worked hard. You've done well. You've gone through a certain amount of hell. And now you've reached that so-called point in life. You say you've got nothing more to prove, but that's not true. In fact, you've got all kinds of stuff to prove. And to justify. And to exorcise. And to prosecute. And to plead. So, claiming you want to challenge yourself, you write a play. It's about the things you know. Your childhood, or your business. The characters are fictionalized versions of relatives or colleagues, and the situations echo real events. You say you just want to tell an entertaining story, but you're really trying to square accounts.

The result isn't exactly what you planned. Sure, the basic form is there, but so are your unacknowledged motives: they keep popping up all over the place, creating unforeseen subtexts and putting strange spins on things. If you're former investor Jerry Sterner, you conceive Other People's Money as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked Boeskyism--only to have it hijacked by Garfinkle, the charismatic vulgarian you'd set up to be the villain. If you're Shelley Berman, you compose First Is Supper as a paean to Mom--only to see it subverted by your rage.

And if you're Cheryl Lavin, you plan a bitchy little jeu a clef about the backbiting, ethics-bending world of celebrity journalism--only to find yourself producing a two-act testament to your ambivalence, your extreme ambivalence, your extreme but inchoate ambivalence over your own role in that world.

Marilynn Preston is credited as coauthor on Celebrity Beat, but Lavin's pretty obviously the heart and soul of the thing. It wouldn't be too much at all to say she's the real-life model behind Molly Harris, the media Candide whose rise from food-section innocence through gossipy notoriety to an Oprah-like success forms the action of the play. After all, Lavin's been, as her program bio states, "on the celebrity beat since she joined the Chicago Tribune in 1981." What's more, she signals her identification with Molly early on by having Molly ask an interview subject the very same "I'm as good as anyone when it comes to [blank]"-type questions Lavin asks in her syndicated "Fast Track" column. Molly may not be a precise Lavin surrogate, but she's provocatively close.

In fact, she's something more intimate, in its way, than a surrogate--she's an alter ego. A Super-Lavin. A columnist's fantasy of empowerment and triumph. Certainly Lavin's earned a degree of success in her career, but Molly ends up getting to put George Bush on hold while she communes with her boyfriend. Molly/Lavin, in short, makes it very big.

Of course, there's a lot of crap she has to slog through before she's vouchsafed a segment on a Barbara Walters special. Starting out in 1974 as an earnest neophyte in clunky heels, Molly gets her first big scoop when the Burt Reynolds-oid movie star she's interviewing gets drunk and tries to rape her. Her next major break arrives when she stumbles upon the gay skeleton in a closeted presidential candidate's bedroom.

The coups seem to come easier after that. Already a minor macher with her own TV gossip spot a la Rona Barrett, Molly ushers in the 80s by befriending a famous, alcoholic older actress, watching her fall off the wagon, and telling the world. By '84, Molly's big enough to be the object of Molly-like smears by other reporters. And by 1990, she's turning away the aforementioned presidential phone calls.

Now what's happened here? Two things. Thing one is that Molly's achieved considerable prominence in her field. More than that, she's achieved happiness: the choice of a phone chat with her boyfriend over a conversation with Bush is meant to suggest that she's really, truly, honestly got it all now; her head's together and her priorities are straight, and she can afford to enjoy the simple pleasures she neglected so badly during her Mildred Pierce phase.

Thing two is that she's compromised herself completely. The cub reporter who wanted to be out there covering Watergate is gone, and in her place is a dealmaker/personality whose success is based on producing trivial stories that hurt people in significant ways. Lavin's no dummy; she realizes there's a moral issue here, and so she gives Molly a moment now and then to stammer about the public's need to know and to consider the damage done--especially the damage to her, when another reporter plays turnabout.

But Lavin's far too committed to the fantasy of Molly's triumph to let it be diluted by the facts. It's unmitigated wish fulfillment or nothing.

And so Molly gets her call from the White House and sweet murmurings from her man. Better yet, she gets excuses. Lavin works it out so that it's not Molly but her editor who makes public the story of her near-rape. Likewise, it's not Molly but her assistant who calls in the story of the presidential candidate's gay proclivities--a story, by the way, that falls into Molly's hands with incredible ease: Lavin doesn't want us thinking her heroine would go digging for that kind of dirt. As for the alcoholic actress, she asked for it--taking a drink in front of a reporter she'd known for a full five minutes and had reason to mistrust. Besides, the publicity probably forced her to face her problem.

For every sin, in short, there's an extenuation. A reason to hold Molly blameless. And yet for every sin there's also an incentive. A reason to commit more. This is how Molly climbs the ladder of success.

Lavin never deals with this dilemma, even though it's the single most compelling thing about an otherwise negligible comedy. Like Jerry Sterner and Shelley Berman, she's too caught up in the contradictions of her subject even to recognize it as her subject. She can't afford to let herself know what her play's about because doing so would bring the fantasy down around her ears. Which might, in turn, bring other things down around her ears. Play therapy's a risky business.

Celebrity Beat, then, is a complete moral and emotional mess. It's also badly written. The presidential candidate, for instance, is portrayed as a real hope for our nation, but all we hear him utter are Gary Hart-esque platitudes about how we ought to do away with divisive labels like "big business" and "small business." Personally, I'd be scared as hell of a president--particularly a Democratic president--who didn't understand the difference between big and small business.

David Zak's production is efficient and even clever at times. I was especially impressed with his use of videos by HMS Media and costumes by Shifra Werch to evoke the enormous Fashion Don't that was the 70s. But Zak's failed in his primary responsibility as director of a new play, which is to help the authors figure out what they've written. I don't know if doing that would have made Celebrity Beat any better--but there's a chance it might have made it more honest.

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