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Based on a Totally True Story, at MTC's Stage II

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Based on a Totally True Story is a delightful comedy that skips along like a stone on the surface of a lake, only without sinking. The material, introduced in a rush, seems very unpromising in summary: two boys meet cute and move in together, but trouble starts when an unproduced play written by one of the duo is optioned by Hollywood. The playwright all but locks himself in his room, rewriting his script according to the producer's endless (and belittling) changes. The other boy quite naturally comes to feel uncared for. Even if I haven't actually seen a play with this plot, I've seen plenty like it. But the rushed introduction is a key to the play's success. By speeding up the action with standup comedy and playing it for laughs, Mr Aguirre-Sacasa makes his story new and interesting.

The best actors in the world can't salvage a boring play - as we saw earlier this season in The Other Side - but many plays are made by great acting, and Carson Elrod provides plenty of that in his portrayal of Ethan Keene. As Ethan puts it, speaking of his new boyfriend, Michael Sullivan (Pedro Pascal), "He liked cute, geeky boys, and I liked anybody who liked cute, geeky boys." Ethan's unaffected cynicism is, of course, a character flaw, and he will pay for it, but we're engaged by his cute, cheeky candor. It doesn't hurt that Mr Pascal plays Michael with an understated groundedness that will take only so much, and then walk away without throwing scene.

Ethan is a mess, and so not ready for a relationship. He makes a comfortable living writing the story of a reasonably popular comic book. (The Flash? I've already forgotten.) He is professional about this work, but he harbors all the usual aspirations to greatness. His latest stab at greatness takes the form of a shlocky but highly symbolic drama involving a family that is all but exterminated by The Sea. Mr Aguirre-Sacasa has made it sufficiently stupid-sounding that we are not wholly unsympathetic when Mary Ellen (Kristine Nielsen), the producer who's partner/husband we never see, asks for substantial, "no biggie" changes. Ms Nielsen is marvelous as a Hollywood ditz who seems to partake of strange divinity. (She does, after all make movies happen.) The actress suggests concealed, dangerous powers that make us fear for Ethan. Always upbeat, Mary Ellen has seen everything and is beyond shock - except when she comes to New York and bellows, "How do you people live here! The dirt! The human detritus!"

The audience loved that and numerous other references to Gotham that may fail to ignite audiences elsewhere, but that was not our problem. We also enjoyed the Los Angeles satire, which was concentrated in the role of "Hot LA Guy," one of four parts played with great gusto by Erik Heger. His LA Guy, wearing a very immodest bit of briefs, stretches out a towel and strikes contemptuously preening poses to excite Ethan, but changes his tune when he finds out what Ethan does for a living. This leads Ethan into colossal temptation to which he succumbs, emerging utterly remorseful.

He has been unfaithful to Michael on another front, by withholding the news his parents are breaking up. We don't meet Ethan's mother, but Ethan's father (Michael Tucker) is a genial little man, full of surprising wisdom and kindness, who nonetheless finds himself lost in middle-aged affections. Nothing winds up Ethan tighter than the suspense of wondering how his mother is going to take the news that her husband has fallen in love with someone else; he is as squeamish as any kid at the thoughts of his parents in amorous mode.

What makes Ethan hold back from Michael? What is he afraid of? He is afraid of having anything more important in his life than his work. It is a superstition, not a desire. He fears that he will dry up as a writer if he acknowledges the prior claims of anyone or anything (including his parents). In a perverse way, he is "cheating" with, not on, Michael. He is cheating on his career, which makes the affair salty. The better-adjusted Michael eventually finds this unacceptable and moves on. (There is never any doubt that Ethan is going to go too far with Michael, so I'm not really giving anything away.)

As the play neared its finale, I sensed something unusual. Based on a Totally True Story is the first play that I have seen that takes having an openly gay lifestyle as in no way abnormal. Ethan's dad never once says a thing that could be taken as a comment, either pro or con, on his son's homosexuality. Neither does Mary Ellen, even though she gives Ethan plenty of advice. The comedy is infused with the conviction that love is love, the same no matter who the lovers are.

Did I say that Carson Ellrod is great? This was the fifth show that I've seen Mr Ellrod in, if you count The Wedding Crashers (in which he plays Senator Cleary's gay-nutso son) but it was the first in which he starred, and, boy, did he star! I'm sure that he was greatly helped by director Michael Bush. Anna Louizos (sets), Linda Cho (costumes) and Traci Klainer (lighting) kept things simple and uncluttered. (May 2006)

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