Just in time for the Oscars: ‘Day of the Docent’ at CoHo

Ebbe Roe Smith and Casey McFeron in "Day of the Docent" at CoHo/Photo: Gary Norman

Ebbe Roe Smith is an actor, a playwright and a Hollywood screenwriter. His biggest movie was his first, “Falling Down,” with Michael Douglas as a rampaging father/ex-husband/middle manager, which sussed out America’s subterranean “Angry White Man” current and brought it to the cineplex everywhere. I’d blame Smith for the erosion of American politics into a bitter rear-guard action by American men protecting their privileges from everybody else, but that would be shooting the messenger. How being a bitter American man has come to involve denying climate change and the usefulness of Darwin in modern biology is a subject for an entirely different bit of writing.

“Falling Down,” as directed by Joel Schumacher wasn’t intentionally funny, though played a little bit differently, it could have been hilarious, with Douglas and his flat-top, thick glasses and brief case. It’s easy to imagine the scene with the surly road crew that doesn’t seem to be doing anything except disrupting traffic flow, a common enough occurrence in modern life, played for laughs. Douglas pulls out a rocket launcher, gets some tips on its operation from a passing kid and blows up the construction site. That’s funny, in a bleak way, and I’m sure most audiences laughed, but the overall tone was “dramatic.”

Anyway, I guess I think of Smith as a humorist, a keen observer of American life with an equally sharp wit, both as a writer and an actor, which is why I re-make “Falling Down” as a comedy in my head. His turn as Roy Cohn in Portland Playhouse’s “Angels in America”  earlier this theater season was perfect for him, because it was funny in the way he’s funny — raw, off-color, with a sardonic view of human desires, including his own.

All of which is just to arrive at his most recent project, “Day of the Docent,” for CoHo Productions, which is an undeniably comic three-hander that stars Smith himself, Casey McFeron and Laura Fay Smith, and which includes a glancing send-up of “Falling Down” as it reduces Hollywood scriptwriting to an applications of specious rules of various sorts to dim plots intended to amuse dim audiences.

Laura Faye Smith as Grace/Photo: Gary Norman

I’ll give you a little set-up of the plot: Mick (McFeron) is a bad guy who wants to go straight, and because he loves movies, he decides to kidnap the author of his favorite film, “The Day of the Docent,” Francis (Ebbe Roe Smith), with his girlfriend Grace (Laura Faye Smith). He’s hoping that Francis will be able to help him come up with a script of his own, but of course, Francis is a washed-up has-been with an alcohol problem. They settle into a trailer and get down to work, and because Mick and Grace provide a steady stream of good vodka and maybe because he likes the attention, Francis actually attempts to be Mick’s mentor.

From there we are treated to Smith’s jaundiced view of Hollywood and its products as Francis attempts to turn Mick’s ideas and lurid details from his life of crime into a script. Of course, Mick doesn’t drink himself and he doesn’t cheat on Grace, who is a pretty tough cookie herself, and pretty soon he’s trying to wean Francis off the sauce, because it’s getting in the way of their progress. The production also has some delightful little comic film segments (directed by Jim Seaton) that play during the blackouts onstage (the trailer, for example, deploys in various ways — Tal Sanders designed the set).

The critique of Hollywood isn’t surprising, really, but it’s still funny as it gets into the business of re-writes and egos and sequels, and sure enough, Mick’s script ends up taking a turn in that direction.

I went to the Sunday matinee, and afterwards Smith was joined onstage by three local indie filmmakers, Kelley Baker, Gil Luna and Kenneth Luba, to talk about movie-making. Smith said that he and McFeron, who is a big movie buff, had started working on some ideas for movies, and that this one, “Day of the Docent,” they’d decided to make into a play. It’s far cheaper to produce a play than a movie, after all. I’m glad they did, actually. McFeron, Ebbe Roe Smith and Laura Faye Smith, directed by Marcella Crowson, have an easy camaraderie onstage — informal, off-the-cuff, all in good fun — that’s easy to lose when transferred to film, unless the spoof is of the very broadest sort.

My favorite line? Grace and Mick have been sparring (as usual — their relationship is actually quite delightful), and Mick finally has had enough. “Don’t you airquote me, Grace,” he says, with just a trace of menace.

My favorite image? Francis in his Speedo, lolling by the kiddie pool, capturing leaves with the little fish sieve that come with aquariums. Ah, the indolent rich!


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