Theater is sure a dodgy enterprise, actress Amaka Izuchi assures in the opening monologue of Anton in Show Business, now playing at Oakland's TheatreFIRST. Playing a salty, fed-up Broadway scenester, she traverses a dark stage that apparently represents a certain sector of downtown Manhattan. Izuchi's character has the topography memorized, and she patiently introduces each little fiefdom: Soho, home of the "downtown" scene; the Times building; Off-Off Broadway. She's well aware of the food chain, too. The Obie award winners stay in their black boxes, while the elites muscle for gigs. It certainly isn't a meritocracy.
Most of us aren't privy to the inner workings of the theater world, but we can understand her sentiments. And though Izuchi is a little less grizzled and cocksure than the part demands, she still sets us up for the story to follow. Three actresses from three different worlds are hired for a production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Holly (Josie Alvarez) is a television diva trying to lard her résumé with skin flicks. Casey Mulgraw (Beth Deitchman) is a jaded member of the Off-Off crowd. Lisabette (Megan Briggs) is a sweet ingenue from Podunk, Texas, where this ill-fated Three Sisters will take place.
Anton is about the means to the end, rather than the end itself. So we get to see three actresses placed in the equivalent of a Petri dish and forced to interact. Other characters pop in and out of the fray, most of them based on stereotypes: a black nationalist director, a country bumpkin, a Polish artiste, a tobacco mogul-turned-arts benefactor, a few gay guys. Six women play all the roles in Anton, which makes the play both feminist and true to the MO of low-budget theater companies — where casting against gender is as common as saddling actors with multiple roles. Director Michael Storm doesn't play up the gender-queer thing too much, though it isn't lost on him, either. There's one implied sex scene, and a few lesbian in-jokes. At one point, Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical" plays, comically, in the background. Michael Flynn's super-spare set design also seems intentional. Littered with Vodka bottles, Sprite cans, cowboy hats, roll-in spotlights, and a door without a wall, it looks like the backstage area where actors go to die.
As spoof, it works, even though the script is corny — especially in the more earnest moments when Holly, Casey, and Lisabette reflect on their shared predicament. You wonder if playwright Jane Martin took herself that seriously. (Note: Rumor has it that "Jane Martin" might be a pseudonym for playwright Jon Jory and his wife.) Jokes about deconstruction grow stale from overuse. Some characters seem superfluous. The actresses' intermittent dialogue with a theater critic named Joby (Dekyi Rongé) gets a bit tiresome. It's not always clear whether the point is just to break down the fourth wall or to compare one flagging industry with another.
That said, there's still a lot to like about this Anton. Deitchman, who is probably the most experienced talent in the bunch, plays a believable Casey Mulgraw against Briggs' slouchy Lisabette. The tension between them is grist for humor, particularly in a dialogue about past sexual exploits. That almost compensates for awkwardness at the beginning, when they're forced to audition for an uppity director (Phoebe Moyer) who subjects his actresses to improv games, among other humiliations. Alvarez never breaks character, although she could probably improve things by taking Holly up to the next level of scandalousness. Moyer, Izuchi, and Shannon Veon Kase handle all the minor parts with alacrity. And if you have any familiarity with the theater world at all, there's a lot to laugh about: the spotlit monologues, the lines spoken in unison, the critics who traffic in clichés, the cat fights, the over-pronounced syllables, the gay guys, the scarves.
Doomsayer discussions about the performing arts — or arts criticism — always strike a nerve. Broadway is certainly ready to make fun of itself. All the tangible weight of the theater industry lies in New York, after all. Here in Oakland, though, it's a much touchier subject. Especially for a small theater company with a modest production schedule. Around here, theater critics might see the Joby character as a mild exercise in self-flagellation. On the East Coast, she probably wouldn't register. Those guys still get to make or break a play, after all.