From extreme airbrushing to revisionist life stories, Hollywood is a place where faking it is business as usual. Carefully crafted, expensively maintained images can mask a host of secrets — at least until the paparazzi and TMZ come calling. Or until a thorny problem like the one in Michael McKeever’s Clark Gable Slept Here pops up.
McKeever’s dark comedy, the fifth world premiere from Miami’s still-young Zoetic Stage, skewers all sorts of Hollywood phoniness, from closeted stars to touching life stories borrowed from movie plots. Wildly funny and comically horrifying, the play is carefully crafted to reveal surprise after surprise, as if it were the theatrical equivalent of Botoxed Russian nesting dolls.
Tweaked and pushed to extremes, Clark Gable Slept Here could have been a farce, one form the versatile McKeever has tackled in the past. But here the playwright and director Stuart Meltzer have chosen to keep things real — well, as real as Hollywood ever gets.
Clark Gable unfolds on the night of the Golden Globe Awards in a glamorous penthouse suite at the Chateau Marmont (the elegant set is by Robert F. Wolin). Jittery hotel manager Gage Holland (Clay Cartland) ushers elegantly dressed agent Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard (McKeever) into the bedroom to point out the obvious: A dead naked man is lying on the rug at the foot of the bed.
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Why is this Hilly’s problem? The suite was rented to his client, married action star Patrick Zane, who at that moment is at the Globes ceremony with his wife waiting to find out whether he has won a career-changing award. And the handsome dead guy? He’s a male prostitute. Oops.
Much more plot detail would spoil those nesting surprises, so we’ll simply note that a Spanish-speaking hotel maid, Estella (Vanessa Elise), and a gorgeous Hollywood “fixer,” Morgan Wright (Lela Elam), play key roles as Hilly and Gage argue over what to do about the inconveniently deceased Travis (Robert Johnston). Note that explicit language, like the nudity, makes Clark Gable an adults-only comedy.
Zoetic, which presents its shows in the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, draws from a deep well of South Florida talent in casting its shows, as its recent production of Assassins and now Clark Gable demonstrate.
McKeever, who is up for a best actor Carbonell Award for his work at Island City Stage last year, is a diminutive man whose raging, scheming Hilly easily intimidates Cartland’s flustered, frustrated, head-taller Gage. Elise, just a year out of Miami’s New World School of the Arts, cracks up the audience members who know Spanish but uses her expressive voice, face and body language to communicate with one and all. Johnston proves to be more than just a pretty face-down body.
The cast really does function beautifully as an ensemble, but Elam, looking ultra glam in a figure-hugging red gown and glittering heels, dominates the action when it’s Morgan’s turn to problem-solve. Performing a part that was written for her, the Carbonell-winning actress uses an array of artistic weaponry — dangerous seductiveness, razor-sharp comic timing, a commanding presence — to add another memorable performance to her body of work. And that, unlike the puffed-up Hollywood phoniness Clark Gable so deftly punctures, is for real.