Now making its world-premiere in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Pershing Square Signature Center, Pay the Writer, by New York Times best-selling author Tawni O’Dell, is not about the current writers’ strike, as the title might lead you to believe. It’s an examination of the effects of talent, fame, money, and ego on relationships, in a story centered on the 45-year friendship of world-famous Black author/Vietnam veteran Cyrus Holt and his successful gay literary agent Bruston Fischer, both of whom overcame the discrimination they faced in their earlier years and formed a bond, professionally and personally. It’s the closest and longest connection either one has ever had, including the womanizing writer’s dysfunctional situation with Lana, his ex-wife (one of several), and Leo and Gigi, his estranged son and daughter, who are called upon to see him as he faces the final chapter of his life.
Under the direction of Karen Carpenter, the production has a lot of talk but little action, in its combination of direct-address narration by the agent in present-day New York, go-back scenes of memories from 45, 30, and 20 years ago in NYC, Paris, and LA, and blocking that is largely confined to shallow bands parallel to the stage, with conversations, limited to two or three characters, which shift from sarcastic zingers to mawkish sentimentality, and secondary plot points that lead nowhere (e.g., we hear about Cy’s current much younger wife and their plans for the formal wedding celebration they didn’t have, but never see her). The delivery is often stilted and unsure, with many flubbed lines at the performance I attended (the day before opening night); even the bulk of confrontations and arguments feel more recitative than emotionally expressive, which might have been less noticeable in reading it as a book than seeing it as a play.
A cast of eight plays nine roles, led by stage and screen stars Ron Canada as the brilliant narcissist Cy (who drunkenly autographs a copy of his book for a producer with the demanding titular words “Pay the Writer”), Bryan Batt as the equally cocky Bruston (as we hear in his cell phone calls that open and close the show, implying that he’s learned nothing from his friend’s mistakes and regrets, but has just been further enabled by the two final surprises he left him), and Marcia Cross as Lana – a standout who brings humor and passion to her anger towards her unfaithful ex, by whom she and their children were neglected in favor of his writing, drinking, long absences, and countless lovers (though, inexplicably, she still hasn’t been able to “break free from his gravitational pull” and comes to see him).
In the dual roles of the young Cyrus and his spoiled and amiable son Leo, who’s never worked a day in his life, Garrett Turner also turns in distinctive portrayals of the two generations of men, who didn’t see each other often but come together through Cy’s legacy of books. And Miles G. Jackson as the young Bruster does a creditable job in conveying his emerging personality and on holding his own in his initial encounter with Cy, beginning a lifelong friendship.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Steven Hauck as the arrogant and elitist French literary translator Jean Luc, Danielle J. Summons as Cy’s beautiful and embittered daughter Gigi, and Stephen Payne as the homeless man he encounters in the park – another Vietnam vet, who suffers from PTSD and just happens to have a tattered paperback copy of Cy’s book about his experiences in the war, from which he reads a passage aloud with flawless eloquence, unaware that the man he’s speaking with is the author – an unnecessary scene that defies all credibility.
While the narrative and characters aren’t always believable, the artistic design delivers. David Gallo’s set easily transitions from the stoop outside Bruston’s brownstone, Cy’s small East Village apartment, loaded with shelves of books, his upscale upper-floor place uptown, with a wall of windows that offers a spectacular view of the city, and a park bench in New York where he meets with the others, to Paris and LA, with beautiful silhouetted cityscapes and landmarks on a series of scrims, all enhanced with appropriate props by Yuki Nakamura and sound by Bill Toles. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind evokes the times of day and shines a spotlight on Bruston’s monologues to the audience from the darkened stage, and costumes by David C. Woolard define the characters and their status, from the sartorial elegance of the Holts, Bruston, and Jean Luc, to the pajamas and robe of the ailing Cy, and the raggedy look of the homeless vet.
Pay the Writer contains a significant message about treating those close to you with love, respect, and kindness before it’s too late, and not letting your wealth, fame, talent, and ego get in the way of your humanity, but the show could use some tightening and active staging to make it more plausible, satisfying, and theatrically compelling.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, without intermission.
Pay the Writer plays through Saturday, September 30, 2023, at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced a $40-$149.50, plus fees), go online. Masks are not required.