Review By J H Kimbrell
Originally performed in 1990, Tom Grimes' two act play "Spec"
might have been inspired by events in South Africa - and in turn carried
over to events in the Gulf - but its poignant theme of imperialistic
money grubbing still holds today, if not more so. Spec 2004 was only
slightly adapted from the original; the same structure is still there,
only a few names have changed. We see two primary examples of this imperialism
at work in the film industry and in warfare, penetrating the most subtle
levels of the play and woven skillfully into dialogue that is delivered
at a rapid fire pace.
Black ops specialist Browner is commissioned with a plan to use the
shooting of an action film in an "undisclosed location" as
a front to running guns to a revolutionary uprising. He meets with a
hidden contact to confirm this plan, and the stage is set.
Meanwhile, director-wannabe attorney Al nudges young screenwriter Mike
to write a horror flick, titled VIRUS, that will sell for the big bucks.
What Mike produces is "too cerebral" for its core audience
(according to Al) and therefore too good to sell because it will force
its audience to think. Any screenwriter who's had to deal with dumbing
down a script for similar reasons will understand poor Mike's predicament:
integrity versus getting paid. With a little forked tongue talk on how
"money is a secondary concern" and quality of life is what
really matters, Al convinces Mike to rewrite VIRUS.
Enter Ted an investment banker, suave and greedy and ready to rise to
the bait of producing the "film" funded by Browner's secret
sources. They have a bit of a history; Ted owes Browner a favor which
the mercenary is bent on collecting. The figures for the supposed film,
which originally started out at 100 million dollars, have dropped to
eighty, twenty million of which go to Ted. It doesn't take much - the
tune of fifty million (notice how Ted trimmed off ten million of the
sixty-million left from the eighty-million budget) - to get Al on board
as the director of the film. It seems Al's ethic on quality of life
is as big a smoke screen as the film project and he soon moves on to
infect young Mike to drop the VIRUS project and write the action script.
With a director, a producer, and a screenwriter all established, next
up is Hicks the unsavory bush pilot who will be running guns into the
mysterious country and flying out film canisters which Browner instructs
him to burn.
Act one is set in various locations around Los Angeles from Al's office,
to a pier at the beach, to a bar. The set itself is fairly plain, with
just enough props and a stream of sound effects that move the audience's
imaginations to help fill in the blanks as to where the characters are
meeting. This is an example of the Alliance Repertory's reputation for
audience involvement. The peaceful cry of seagulls and hush of waves
on the beach, or the dance music at the bar, creates a juxtaposition
with the sound effects to follow in the second act.
Act two sees our little group a few weeks later set up in a tent on
location for the film shoot. The heat is up as Al, Ted, and Mike are
forced to come to the reality that they've been used and are in process
of being dropped like a bad habit. Browner's source, to whom he was
supplying the weapons for revolution, has turned the same weapons on
Browner and now the film crew is affected. Ted, Al, and Mike all peek
out of a tent flap and report seeing executions and beatings. As an
audience, we are practically in the tent with them, but just keeping
our distance. Ted compulsively grooms himself with a huge selection
of hair and skin care products. This behavior is incredibly funny but
also understandable as not simple vanity but also expressing revulsion
to the horror and filth of traveling in a war-torn, third-world region.
As explosions begin to more heavily rock the scene, Ted falls apart,
clinging to his trunk of grooming products like it's his last link to
civilization. Al gradually loses himself more in the moment, imagining
it all as a movie and despairing that no one has cameras rolling on
all of the "free footage" going on outside the tent. When
Mike is shot, it's to the corner of the stage where the nearest audience
members can worry that bullets really are flying in their direction.
Browner and Hicks offer no assistance. They make a run for it as the
bombs begin to drop, leaving "Moe, Larry, and Curly," as Hicks
calls them, behind. As comical as the comment sounds, it's hard core
truth; Ted, Al, and Mike have been made stooges by Browner's failed
plan and by their own greed letting money get in the way of good judgment.
At roughly ninety minutes long, with a fifteen minute intermission,
Spec feels like it moves much faster. Director Scott Campbell does wonders
with five actors and a small space. A fog machine provides dust and
smoke effects along side the rumbles of bombs dropping and the crack
of bullets flying, taking everyone on a ride. Timing is essential for
both dialogue and action as the characters are thrown around from the
distant "bomb" impact, giving the impression that the whole
theater is shaking, and everyone is right on cue. The most honest characters
are Ted and Hicks (though we see far less of Hicks). We know from the
start where they stand. Al, however, is the original hypocrite with
his claim that money doesn't matter to him, but then he easily sells
his soul when Ted drops him the right price. Mike tries to maintain
some dignity in the beginning then gives into temptation only to be
completely and haplessly swept up in the conflict. The way everyone
keeps shaving a ten million dollar cut off the film's budget is hilarious,
and goes on until they incidentally bust each other for it. Al's defense
against imminent death is to drift even further into the fantasy that
he's still in the middle of shooting a film, a frustrating moment for
both Ted and the audience. "Are you insane?" Ted asks him.
"We are not watching this thing on TV. We are going to die!"
It's sad. . . damned sad. . . We watch the world though television and
movies, sooner or later the difference between Hollywood and the real
thing will meld in an untimely and ugly end.
Enjoyable and stirring, and if you aren't alert when you go into the
Alliance, you will be when you leave.