Schmucks and Queens

Jon Robin Baitz’s Mizlansky/Zilinsky or “schmucks” is as curious as its title. It is the full-length expansion of a 1984 one-acter, and it feels like patchwork: Is it possible that the additions were not new scenes but bits squeezed into the interstices here and there? For the play alternates between passages of dramatic alertness and periods of dozing off. In which case, one wonders, when was the playwright asleep, back in 1984 or now?

Davis Mizlansky and Sam Zilinsky co-produced sleazy little movies in the good, or bad, old days. At this point, the IRS is investigating some of their past machinations. The more sophisticated Zilinsky, now an ex-partner living in New York, is ready, in exchange for immunity, to spill the beans, to the chagrin of Mizlansky, who holds the beleaguered fort in L.A. Meanwhile, there are two projects on the agenda. First, tapes of biblical tales, such as The Real Story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for Kmart marketing. This one interests a consortium of Oklahoma businessmen, for whom the dentist Horton De Vries is negotiating. Next, a script about Nazi war criminals hiding in the U.S.A., to be written by the slippery Alan Tolkin and starred in by the slipping Lionel Hart, formerly of the TV series Tintoretto, Art Detective.

When De Vries is sounded out on the Nazi subject, he asks for “a more balanced approach” to it than is customary: Our cowboy-booted dentist partakes of the jack-booted Nazi mentality. The Jewish Mizlansky and Tolkin are hardly fazed by this; the Jewish Zilinsky and Hart react angrily. Meanwhile, young Paul Trecker, Mizlansky’s writer, story editor, and factotum (the playwright’s presumptive alter ego), observes and tries to maintain his sanity as Mizlansky keeps sending him out for just the right can of tuna – no other brand will do. Besides Zilinsky we also get Miles Brook, the sweaty-under-the-collar lawyer, and, later, Dusty Fink, the New Age masseuse. (Baitz is good with names.) On the phone, we hear aural cameos from Mrs. Z. (Christine Baranski) and the ex-Mrs. M. (Julie Kavner).

It is well known that good satire is written with some ambivalence: a sense of shared guilt, co-conspiratorial amusement, even grudging admiration. Baitz certainly exhibits something like this, and all his characters have moments of horrific magnificence. His one-liners are as good as they come: “You have to have a particular nature to be a whore: chronic underachievers with the complexion of nonstop masturbators.” Or: “White-collar prisons, where politicians write books, are born again, and rape you.” A person pleading insufficient biblical knowledge – “I took ‘The Bible as Literature’ at Brandeis” – is reproved with “You’re overqualified.” Or: “Can I ask you a special question: Are you just a little bit gay?” But all this Hollywood stuff is a tired, if not exhausted, subject; yet a new angle is hard to come by. Baitz does well, but only a miracle would do.

Nathan Lane is better as a light-in-the-loafers comic than as a dog-eat-dog heavy, but his Mizlansky manages some wonderfully incredulous looks, deeply injured silences, and majestic throwaway lines, e.g., “You’re like some kind of Park Avenue Jewish Wasp.” His former cohort and current nemesis, Zilinsky, who wears green suede slip-ons bought in Tokyo, is grandly embodied by Lewis J. Stadlen. When these two have at each other, there are more sparks than from an old locomotive cleaving the night. There is fun when former M/Z hits like Hitler’s Niece, Sidewinder Summer, and LSD Mama Detective are recalled, but there is also all that familiar smog that Mizlinsky’s hilltop Xanadu looks down on: too much déjà in that view.

Fine supporting performances by Lee Wilkof, Larry Pine, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mark Blum, and Jennifer Albano help, although Paul Sands’s movie and TV star is too eccentric by two thirds. Joe Mantello has directed cannily, but the real heroes are the designers: Ann Roth, with costumes that provide Proustian character analysis; Brian MacDevitt, who does with lights what the Impressionists did with brushes; and Santo Loquasto, whose sets are marvels in themselves and in their lightning changes: the true objective correlatives of the author’s ideas.

Schmucks and Queens