“I have a name, but I’m nobody until it’s known. I can’t even be myself until I have a name. Once I have a name, I can be anybody I want and it doesn’t matter! Get it?”
Rollin Jewett’s provocative The Big Dream appeared as part of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival at New York City’s Abrons Arts Center on Wednesday, June 23. Directed by Jay Michaels, Jewett’s dark comedy is a smart, very modern exploration of the titular “big dream”: success, fame, and respect as an actor. The story of the proverbial actor’s pathway to superstardom is not a new one: The endless tales of showbiz people and the environments they work in have been a fertile source of material for plays, movies, and TV shows for decades. How “meta”! Over and over again, the characters learn the same hard lessons: Acting is a cruel. There are endless auditions and constant rejections… with no guarantees. There’s a high unemployment rate. As one character in The Big Dream notes early on in the play, people have an entire list of stereotypes about actors: “broke, unreliable, reckless, unstable, insecure, difficult, drugged-out, bad attitude, selfish, egocentric, narcissistic, megalomaniac, shmoozer, lazy, loser, dreamer, user, womanizer, dirtbag, scumbag, sleazebag, fill-in-the-blank bag, etc.”, Whoa! Worst of all, acting is indeed a bona fide profession, but has arguably never received the respect it deserved through the decades. So, the Big Question is: As we progress into 2021, why do people still choose this career pathway?
Maybe we should ask Jack (Matt Frenzel), the main character of The Big Dream. Our protagonist’s first foray into performing came with imitating Sesame Street characters as a child, and moving on to reciting the most iconic lines from Brando, Pacino, Nicholson, etc. as a teenager– a practice which confused and irritated his two brothers (Andrew J. Koehler and Anthony Diaz). Now 28 and a working actor, Jack has been dumped by his long-suffering girlfriend of three years, Lisa (Zara Zeidman). Lisa has apparently gotten tired of competing with Jack’s career aspirations, calling him a dreamer and a fantasist. In coping with the loss of Lisa and his problem with maintaining relationships with women in general, Jack seeks out a no-nonsense, blunt-talking therapist (Donna L. White) who seemingly throws multiple diagnoses at Jack with the speed of a machine gun. We get to hear Jack’s story from the beginning… but not before the actor and the therapist exchange a telling piece of introductory conversation:
Jack: “I am an artist”.
Therapist: “What kind of artist?“
Jack: “An actor.”
Therapist: “I see. And how do you propose to pay for this session?”
After a rocky start, the two agree to work together– and via flashback scenes, we learn that Jack’s personal epiphany into the dramatic arts came after crashing a high school drama rehearsal. Given the chance to show his talent, Jack wows the teacher (Rose Zisa). His desire to be an actor, we learn, saved him from a pathway of juvenile delinquency: He he was harassing homeless men and starting other miscellaneous trouble with his best bud Sonny (Sara Minisquero), whose personal style of wardrobe and speech were inspired by the villains of A Clockwork Orange. But before you can say, “I was cured, all right!”, our libidinous hero’s goal becomes no less than superstardom, AKA “the big dream”: fame, fortune, and respect. And there’s no turning back…
“Cute” is probably the best adjective to describe the first half of Jewett’s play: With its light comedic moments, The Big Dream at first comes across as yet another pilot for a new sitcom about a young, handsome, idealistic, single straight guy living in the big city and trying to balance auditions with sexual trysts. Gradually, and before the audience even realizes it, the script becomes increasingly cynical and serious as it explores the less glamorous side of the business– and more importantly, its effect on our lead character. The story finishes with a rather dark– and VERY unexpected– conclusion.
Packing a wallop into its relatively brief running time, The Big Dream is directed with great fluidity by Jay Michaels. As the lead character, Matt Frenzel is superb as Jack. Frenzel’s Jack comes across as a personality who likely comes across as charming and self-confident in public, but who we suspect may also be likely suffering from at least some of the emotional maladies which his staid therapist accuses him of. As that therapist, Donna L. White is equally excellent as Jack’s foil. As Sonny, Jack’s adolescent-era partner in crime, Sara Minisquero is a comedic revelation, managing to be idiosyncratically likable even as they are guided missile-ing such insults as “bum-fiddler”, “douche-waffle”, and “clown-faced fart-burger”. Rounding out the cast are Zara Zeidman, Rose Zisa, Andrew J. Koehler, Anthony Diaz, Michael Pichardo, and Melissa Ford— most of whom play multiple roles.
Rollin Jewett’s play is definitely worthy of becoming a recurrent “Dream”!