Performing Arts

Zoetic Stage’s ‘Clark Gable’ looks at Hollywood through darkly comic glasses

Wild things happen behind many a hotel room door, but most such shenanigans are tame by comparison to the craziness playwright Michael McKeever has dreamed up for his newest dark comedy, Clark Gable Slept Here.

The play, which will get its Zoetic Stage world premiere in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater this weekend, has at least four big surprises layered into the script, and those twists are hush-hush.

Still, it’s safe to reveal that the play starts off with a bang (well, post-hookup, anyway): A naked, dead male prostitute has been discovered lying on a bedside rug in the Chateau Marmont suite of Hollywood’s biggest action star. It’s the night of the Golden Globes, and the “happily” married star is up for a best actor award that could make the world take his talents more seriously. Yet, as always, everyone else — in this case his agent, the hotel manager, a Hollywood fixer and the maid — is left to clean up the superstar’s mess.

“As comically terrible as the situation is, I wanted the characters to be as glamorous as possible,” says McKeever, who plays agent Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard. “I wanted to give insight into how the world of the play works, the almost casual way that an emergency is handled by people in the know.”

Clark Gable Slept Here is, as Arsht executive vice president Scott Shiller notes, the fifth world premiere from a company that is just over three years old. As he sees it, that “really illustrates the success of the partnership, two creative organizations sparking a creative relationship.”

Staged by Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic’s artistic director and McKeever’s longtime partner, Clark Gable features Zoetic veterans and newcomers.

Carbonell Award winner Lela Elam, who appeared in the Zoetic world premiere of McKeever’s Moscow, plays fixer Morgan Wright, a role McKeever crafted for her. Clay Cartland, fresh off playing John Hinckley in Zoetic’s Assassins, is nervous hotel manager Gage Watkins. Robert Johnston, who will star in Slow Burn Theatre’s High Fidelity this summer, is the dead guy Travis. And Vanessa Elise, who graduated a year ago from Miami’s New World School of the Arts, is the Chateau Marmont maid Estella.

Originally, McKeever says, he had intended to make the character of the fixer (a problem solver a bit in the style of Showtime’s Ray Donovan) a man. But once he changed Morgan’s gender, he kept hearing Elam’s voice.

“She needed to be someone who is in absolute control, a presence, beautiful to look at,” the playwright says. “When you have an actor like Lela in mind, it gets easy. I know the wide array of tools she has.”

Elam, an actor who doesn’t leave her house unless her hair, makeup and outfit are just right, says she was “blown away” by the fact that McKeever crafted the part for her. She thinks the world sees her as having Morgan’s strength (she begs to differ), but she loves being the first actor to play a woman she calls “a tough chick.”

“I’m having a good time being bad,” Elam says, laughing.

Elise, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, is a fluent Spanish speaker who translated the lines McKeever wrote for Estella. But that didn’t make delivering them any easier.

“I’ve never played a character who speaks Spanish for that length of time,” she says. “You have to find what feels comfortable in your mouth. Spanish is a tricky language; when you change from English to Spanish, sometimes the order of the words changes. I had to make sure that the intentions weren’t lost. But a lot of it I physicalize, so people who don’t understand Spanish know what’s happening. We call it the Estella ballet.”

The hotel manager Gage, says Cartland, “becomes the audience’s point of view on what’s happening. He’s everyone’s moral compass, but no one listens to him.… He’s very straight-laced and probably has general anxiety disorder. He likes things a certain way.”

Travis, whose nakedness is one reason Clark Gable isn’t recommended for anyone younger than 18, represents a new challenge for Johnston, who has never done onstage nudity before.

“It’s so easy to think you will do something until you’re presented with the opportunity,” the actor says. “I had a friend who always got nervous at auditions, so he’d just repeat to himself over and over how excited he was to audition, and it worked. Really, it’s like a cold pool. You just jump in.”

Meltzer and McKeever have numerous projects going on, separately and together, including putting together the 38th annual Carbonell Awards show and ceremony at the Broward Center March 31. Their hectic schedules, Meltzer says, make living together a bonus.

“When we drive, we talk about concepts, characters, moments,” the director says. “There’s luxury in a spousal relationship.”

Though their working relationship might cause Meltzer as the director to ask McKeever as the playwright to cut or rework lines, that’s not a problem. McKeever says he’s perfectly willing to “kill my babies” or rewrite. And he does.

“He’s amazing. All he wants is for the play to work,” Meltzer says.