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review

Emma Ferreira, left, and Tony Ofori, right, in Copy That.Cylla von Tiedemann

  • Copy That
  • Written by Jason Sherman
  • Genre Comedy
  • Director Jamie Robinson
  • Actors Emma Ferreira, Janet Laine-Green, Jeff Lillico, Tony Ofori, Richard Waugh
  • Company and Venue Tarragon Theatre
  • City Toronto
  • Year Runs to Sunday, Dec. 8

Rating:

2.5 out of 4 stars

A couple of decades ago, Jason Sherman was one of Canada’s star playwrights. Then he got lured away by the big bucks of television. Now he’s back, safe and sound, at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, with a harrowing report from the trenches.

Or to be precise, from the writers’ room of a TV series, which is similar to the trenches but, if you believe Sherman, with marginally more pain and agony.

Copy That, his funny but flawed new satire, plunges us into one such room, where a writing team is frantically outlining a new cop show called Hostages. The pressure is on: Deadlines are looming to present the scripts to the network and the production company’s micromanaging boss, Elsa (Janet-Laine Green), is demanding constant rewrites. Her company’s in trouble – even its children’s show about a talking tractor is doing badly – and she needs Hostages to be a hit.

Most of the burden falls on the slumped shoulders of Peter (Richard Waugh), the showrunner. He’s the old white guy in the room with bitterness to spare, having sold his creative soul to the devil of commercial television 30 years ago. His team includes Danny (Jeff Lillico), a glib young Jewish guy with previous TV experience, and two newbies: Colin (Tony Ofori), a black crime novelist making his first foray into screenwriting, and biracial Maia (Emma Ferreira), who is fresh from film school.

As they brainstorm characters and plots, the stereotypes and clichés of TV writing fly thick and fast – even though the writers acknowledge and half-heartedly try to remedy them. But then rude reality intrudes. One night, while driving Maia home from a party, Colin gets into a violent altercation with a racist, taser-wielding police officer. Angry and injured, he not only plans to sue, he also wants to write his real-life experience into the cop show.

At that point, the play makes an uneasy move into drama, as Colin’s battle to inject brutal realism into a piece of formulaic entertainment brings out the latent racism and cowardice in his colleagues.

As the story becomes semi-serious and uncertain, the play descends into various perfunctory plot twists.Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

Sherman is on surer footing when he’s giving us his insider’s glimpse into the insanity and inanity of the television industry. The early scenes are as frenetically funny as a classic screwball comedy. Director Jamie Robinson’s staging begins at warp speed, the actors spitting out the playwright’s rapid-fire dialogue. That is, all except for Ferreira, whose Maia can’t get a word in edgewise amid the loud testosterone banter. (There’s a minor theme of office sexism here.)

But as the story becomes semi-serious and uncertain, the pace falters. It descends into various perfunctory plot twists, including a final, transparent one that we’ve seen too many times before. Or maybe that’s the point – the play is ironically titled Copy That after all.

That dictum seems to have extended to the acting – as Danny, Lillico just does a minor variation on the unlikeable writer character that he portrayed in Kat Sandler’s Bang Bang two seasons ago. Ofori and Ferreira are solid in their underwritten roles, but the show belongs to Waugh and Green.

As the perpetually stressed Peter, Waugh always seems one eyelid twitch away from a nervous breakdown. Playing his crazy-making nemesis, the hilarious Green spends the first part of the play offstage, her dithering heard on speaker phone. When she finally appears, she doesn’t disappoint – she’s like an evil queen who’s a few toads shy of a spell, but is still able to tempt her writers with a poisoned apple in the form of a fat paycheque.

I’m a sucker for tales of screenwriting woes, from the late William Goldman’s classic Adventures in the Screen Trade to the Showtime series Episodes, but Sherman doesn’t add much new to the familiar art-versus-commerce scenario. And he closes on a cynical note that, while it may suggest why he’s come back to the theatre, leaves us feeling bummed out.

Copy That continues to Dec. 8. (tarragontheatre.com)

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