December 14, 2018

A Timeless Hollywood Tale

“Merton of the Movies,” the wonderfully funny production at the Geffen Playhouse, shows that not all that much has changed in Hollywood since the comedy’s première in 1922.

Sure, we now have sound, special effects and star salaries — which could have then purchased all the movie studios combined.

But in today’s dream factory, there are still egomaniacal directors, plots that defy all credibility, and small-town would-be thespians yearning for stardom. And then, as now, Jewish energy and attitudes pulsate through the industry.

Taken on that level, the play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly is not only a pointed commentary on the unchangeability of human nature, but a fast-paced comedy with the audience supplying its own laugh track.

The play’s title character is Merton Gill, a Midwestern hick who clerks in the Simsbury General Store during the day and labors over a correspondence course in acting at night. His ambition is to become a cowboy star, but only in serious, uplifting dramas, not the despised comedies with cross-eyed fall guys.

Once the train drops Merton off in Los Angeles, he cools his heels in casting offices; meets his idol, Beverly Baxter; is rejected by jodhpured director Sigmond Rosenblatt; and aided by a street-wise starlet with a heart of gold, “Flips” Montague.

Merton finally makes it big when he stars in a cowboy two-reeler, which he considers an uplifting drama, but everyone else knows is a comic send-up of vain movie star Harold Parmalee.

In the end, of course, Merton gets the girl, but also, familiarly, chucks his more serious artistic ambitions for a lucrative paycheck.

Director John Rando retains the stylized comic form of the Kaufman-Connelly original, and, once accepted by the audience, fits in well with the evening’s mood.

Barry Del Sherman is a pleasant enough Merton, but he is frequently upstaged by co-star Heidi Mokrycki as the spunky starlet and Richard Libertini as reigning comedy director Jeff Baird.

“Merton of the Movies” is playing through Aug. 1 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. For information and tickets, call (310) 208- 5454 or (213) 365-3500.