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THEATER : Man Bites Hollywood : John Patrick Shanley's play 'Four Dogs and a Bone' is a riff on the tradition of playwrights-turned-screenwriters biting the celluloid hand that feeds them. He admits he's not above the behavior he is skewering

November 21, 1993|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

NEW YORK — During one of John Patrick Shanley's first visits to Los Angeles, in 1985, a prominent film producer, eager to meet the young playwright, invited him to lunch. No sooner had Shanley, then 33, been seated than his host launched into a detailed description of his own rectal problems.

"He talked for five minutes about this canker, which he described as being the size of a shrimp," Shanley recalls. "Then the menus arrived."

This first--but by no means last--brush with a certain kind of Hollywood-style emotional intimacy has worked its way into Shanley's new play, "Four Dogs and a Bone," an excoriatingly funny take on the film world that recently opened to near-unanimous rave reviews at the subscription-audience Manhattan Theatre Club. The four-character production, directed by Shanley, moves to the 299-seat Lucille Lortel Theatre on Dec. 9 for an open-ended run.

In it Shanley wickedly portrays four desperately scheming characters--a producer, a screenwriter and two actresses--each with his or her own agenda for completing the movie (the bone) they are working on. The actresses each want their roles expanded; the producer wants scenes cut to prevent budget overruns. All but the writer think the film is too "arty." "The guy dies, everything falls apart, life stinks. It's an art-house picture," one of the characters says condescendingly.

Casting their mean and hungry looks at the meatless bone are the crass producer, Bradley (Tony Roberts), who hopes to use it to make a comeback; the idealistic fringe playwright, Victor (Loren Dean), whose first picture may mean a possible escape from penury; the aging ingenue, Colette (Polly Draper), who sees this next step leading either to starring roles or playing "someone's aunt with cancer." And pretty young Brenda (Mary-Louise Parker), more a "personality than an actress" and a pathological liar to boot, who is chanting--and sleeping--her way to fame.

One might be tempted to view "Four Dogs and a Bone" as the latest riff in a timeworn tradition. From Kaufman & Hart's "Once in a Lifetime" to David Mamet's "Speed-the-plow," playwrights-turned-screenwriters have gleefully bit the celluloid hand that feeds them. Certainly Shanley knows the terrain, having struggled as a marginal playwright before winning an Oscar for his screenplay of "Moonstruck" (1987) and then helming the expensive 1990 dud "Joe Versus the Volcano." But Shanley doesn't absolve himself of the behavior he is skewering.

"I certainly don't feel morally superior to these people," said the amiable writer, in a breakfast interview at a favorite Greenwich Village haunt near the apartment he shares with his wife, actress Jayne Haynes, and their two children. "I didn't sit down to write a satire. I sat down to write my own personal experience."

Looking professorial in a corduroy jacket and wire-rimmed glasses but occasionally sounding like the Bronx-bred ex-Marine that he is, Shanley added: "Very little in this play is made up out of whole cloth. (All) of what those characters say and do, I heard and saw over and over again. This is what was said to me and, in a moment of rancor, what I recalled."

Shanley says he set the play in New York rather than Los Angeles to create the insular ambience of an independent production. But no matter the setting, Shanley's narcissistic civilization still has the same gods (Steven Spielberg and screenwriter William Goldman are major name-drops), curses ("straight to video"), sacrificial rituals (sleeping with the screenwriter) and values ("Sometimes character is an obstacle to be overcome," says the producer, thoughtfully).

"The material is so juicy, that's why writers return to it again and again," says Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"). "Everything in Shanley's play is certainly recognizable to anybody who's made movies. It's not remotely bizarre."

In fact, the play has generated particular curiosity in the film community (Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford were at a recent performance), and Shanley says his agent has fielded many requests for copies of the script--less, he thinks, because of interest in a possible option than for a chance to grab a peek at the composite characters and try to figure out on whom they might be based.

"The producer should recognize himself," Shanley says. "There aren't that many producers who screwed me out of $25,000 and who also have rectal problems."

The cynical comedy is something of a departure for Shanley, who has in the past been preoccupied with issues of heroism and love, first in his plays, from "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," his breakthrough in 1984, to "Beggars in the House of Plenty," and then in his movies, from "Five Corners" to "Alive." In "Dogs," not only are those virtues not part of the lexicon, but they are actually perceived to be fatal in the context of the power struggles taking place.

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