by Lynn on November 17, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jason Sherman

Directed by Jamie Robinson

Set and costumes by Rachel Forbes

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Emma Ferreira

Janet-Laine Green

Jeff Lillico

Tony Ofori

Richard Waugh

A production that goes like the wind but whose story are we listening to as the focus of the play and what is its point?

The Story.  Copy That is playwright Jason Sherman’s look at the fraught world of writing a cop show for network television and how real life sometimes is not a good fit.

We are in the writing room for the show called “Hostages” in which every week the writers have to come up with a story in which good cops save people who are held hostage.

They are lead by Peter who is the senior writer and show runner—the person who sees that the components of the show run smoothly. He’s been doing this kind of work for about 30 years and knows all the angles. Danny is a hip writer in his late 30s. Maia is a biracial young writer who is diligent and eager but not experienced.  She has a hard time getting the men in the room to listen to her. Colin is a novelist transitioning into television writing.  He’s black. You might say that that writing room is ticking all the boxes for diversity. It’s even referenced quietly in one of the speeches. And there is Elsa who is the head of the department who either accepts or rejects these scripts.  She is demanding and changes her mind at will and that drives Peter crazy.  But he thinks he knows how to deal with her.

Then one night Colin is driving Maia home and she’s had too much to drink and lays out in the back seat.  Colin is pulled over by the police. Colin thinks it’s because he’s black and drives a nice car. The police see Maia laid out in the back seat, think the worst of Colin and rough him up when he stands up for his rights. When he shows up for work the next day he is still sore. Naturally he wants to write an episode that depicts what has happened. Peter says it doesn’t fit into the outline of the show. The police on the show are supposed to be good.

Colin writes it any way and then all the politicking, maneuvering, and jockeying for position with Elsa goes into overdrive regarding getting the script accepted. Maia and Colin get hate e-mail from racists and trolls. We see what people will do to tell their story and keep their jobs, as the real world crushes in on them.

The Production and Comment. In Rachel Forbes’s spare set the writing room consists of a bulletin board with cards on it outlining each episode and where they are in the process. There is a whiteboard with each character’s name on it and their distinguishing traits. The writers sit at tables pushed together. Each writer has his/her own laptop. Dress is casual. Peter (Richard Waugh) is in a work shirt and jeans. There is a phone on Peter’s desk.

Ideas are bounced around as Peter either accepts, rejects or questions them. Jason Sherman’s dialogue is rapid fire. The accomplished cast under Jamie Robinson’s skilled direction bats the words back and forth as quickly as a game of ping pong. These are people who have to think on their feet, meet deadlines and produce scripts.  Peter is the pro at this stuff. Richard Waugh as Peter either slouches in his chair or paces the room. Through Waugh’s intense, nuanced performance we get the full sense of Peter’s frustration working with Elsa when he takes her calls and puts her on speaker-phone. Richard Waugh leans against the table stiffly; he clenches his fists; the body language suggests total frustration. His voice is controlled and measured but we see he is anything but. This is a man who has endured this treatment, this undermining, his whole career. It’s a performance that is emotionally charged.  It’s been way too long since Mr. Waugh was on a stage to show us his gifts.

Maia as played by Emma Ferreira quietly endures being ignored by the men, passed over for ideas or treated with an off-handedness when they do listen to her. Maia is young, inexperience and is a devoted student of ‘book-learning’ because that is what she can hang on to until she gets life experiences. She finally gets her dibs in when she unloads on Peter and the room by telling them how they treat her. Jeff Lillico as Danny has that confidence of a man who knows how to play the game in that fast world. Morals are not important. Getting ahead is. He is passionate about his work and the show and bridles when Elsa changes the gender of a character, but he knows how to ride out the rough patches.

Tony Ofori imbues Colin with justified outrage at his treatment. He wants to get even for  the racist treatment he experienced at the hands of the police. He knows how to use procedure to plead his case, but also knows how to take advantage of a situation in getting even. There is passion and frustration in this performance that is bang on.

Janet-Laine Green as Elsa, whether on the phone or in person, is formidable. She is a woman in a man’s world and she needs this show to succeed. She knows how to play her writers. It’s the compliment game of using their names all the time—I guess everybody sees through that, but it is fun to hear her do it. Her talk is quick, to the point and blithely  broadsiding—she changes the gender of a character because a star is interested and just as easily changes other decisions. More than anything she knows how to play one character against another. Working in the television business is a blood sport and Elsa has mastered the game. Jason Sherman beautifully captures that in his quick, brittle dialogue. And the humour is sharp, focused and dark. Copy That is full of Sherman’s particular humour.

Director Jamie Robinson does dandy work of showing the energy and frustration of creating a TV show as the characters interact. They all compromise their morals and beliefs to write for this show, but Peter knows it clearly about himself and knows the consequences.  In a way it’s heartbreaking for him. And while I was grateful for the performances and the direction the play is confusing in its intent and disappointing at the end of the day.

Jason Sherman has realistically depicted a television writer’s room because he’s had extensive experience writing for television.  But there is that other real world, Colin’s experiences as a black man being mistreated by the police, that we are told about, but is not used in the television show because it would be politically explosive to Elsa. The writers comment that for every script the higher ups send them notes and comments longer than the submission so the submission is usually watered down.

If the opportunity of dealing with Colin’s real experiences in the TV show is ignored then what is the point of the play? Is it just to show us what goes on in a television network writing room? It’s too easy a solution. And to quote a line of questioning in the text, whose voice are we listening to and why?  Is Sherman trying to illustrate how TV writing sucks your soul out? Don’t we know that? Isn’t that a cliché? Is he trying to say that TV ignores real life because it’s too challenging or realistic? Well, good TV shows disprove that thesis. So what is it about?  Beats me?

 There are so many revelations and plot twists and surprises at the end of the play that I thought Jason Sherman does not know how to end this play and he’s too good a writer for me to think that, but I do.  Disappointing.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Opened: Nov. 13, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with an intermission.


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