Directed by Karen Carpenter, Pay the Writer by best-selling novelist Tawni O’Dell is slick and superficial but entertaining and engrossing. The story of the 45 year friendship between an ultimately successful gay literary agent and an unknown African American novelist who becomes celebrated and wealthy plays like a novel or mini-series with its 13 scenes and many two-character encounters but is ultimately satisfying by the time it reaches its denouement. The high powered cast plays it to the hilt, belying the fact that the characters are superficial and stereotyped, which, of course, doesn’t make it untrue. Some of the play is extremely funny with one-liners worth repeating.
While the play has no new revelations or insights, it is engrossingly told using the device of one of the two main characters as narrator. Bryan Batt plays Bruston Fischer, a legendary literary agent, who first met Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada), when he was a talented but unpublished African American novelist 45 years ago coming out of Random House where Bruston worked as a lowly script reader and was trying to navigate Manhattan as a gay man before most homosexual men were out to society. Now years later Cyrus is an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize and two-time National Book Award-winning author who is ill and doesn’t expect to live to see his latest book published.
In the present Bruston reviews the four decades they have known each other, including trips to Paris for International Book Fairs, Cyrus’ four rocky marriages as well as his drinking, lying, disappearing for months at time and his other women, as well as his difficult relationship with his two children. Theirs is the most stable relationship either has ever known. The play does recycle many clichés and truisms about writers: their drinking, their unreliability, their promiscuity, and their poor treatment of their families – which may all be true of some writers.
While the characters are one dimensional, the actors bring a great deal of style and depth to their roles which tend to be written as clichéd and overly familiar. The play offers few surprises, but the storytelling is interesting and absorbing without any new perceptions. Batt is both suave and acerbic as a man who gives as good as he gets. Canada has authority and gravitas as the African American writer who has become a staple of the American educational syllabus but can’t justify the choices he has made. As his ex-wife and the mother of his children, Marcia Cross is sexy and sophisticated. As Cyrus’s French translator Jean Luc who is avoiding getting back to him with his opinion of latest and probably last manuscript, Steven Hauck is amusing and droll.
The minor characters have a difficult time of making a strong impression as we see a great deal less of them and the author has relied on shorthand to create them. Danielle J. Summons as Cyrus’s daughter Gigi is one of those beautiful women who resent people remarking on it as if that were her only attribute. Garrett Turner plays Cyrus’ son Leo who has not found himself at 39 and not having enough to do is overly concerned with his wardrobe. Turner and Miles G. Jackson play the young Cyrus and Leo, respectively, who resemble the men they will become. Stephen Payne gives a convincing performance as a Homeless Man who like Cyrus fought in Vietnam and Cyrus finds him reading a dog-eared copy of his famous novel about racism in the American Army when they meet in Central Park.
The design elements are quite impressive. David Gallo’s sets for the many scenes handle the assignment in several ways: some are suggested like the outdoor New York and Paris scenes with their black and white skylines, while others like Cyrus’ penthouse apartment with its stunning view of Central Park and his book-lined East Village hideaway are complete to the last detail. David C. Woolard’s costumes are a veritable fashion parade for both the men and women. The lighting by Christopher Akerlind subtly delineates the various locales and times of day.
The title of Tawni O’Dell’s Pay the Writer has very little to do with the play as it is mentioned only once in a throwaway scene set in Hollywood where Cyrus has gone to attempt to write his first screenplay to disastrous results. What the play is really about is the up and down life of a successful creative artist who has trouble with the demons that make him tick. The play also demonstrates the influence the two men have on each other over the years causing them to be better at their work. While the play does not have anything new to say, Karen Carpenter’s glossy and sleek production makes it seem better than it is. The cast headed by Ron Canada, Bryan Batt and Marcia Cross is always diverting to be around.
Pay the Writer (through September 30, 2023)
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.bit.ly/PayTheWriterTickets
Running time: two hours and five minutes without an intermission