Reviews

Pay The Writer **

By: Samuel L. Leiter

August 21, 2023: In case the title of Tawni O’Dell’s dawdling new comedy-drama, Pay the Writer, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, makes you think it’s related to the current writers’ strike, think again. Instead, it’s about a fictional African American novelist, Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada, Network), a Viet Nam vet, famous, financially successful, and highly regarded by the critical establishment (two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize). Dying of a fatal illness, he seeks, albeit reluctantly, to reconcile his differences with those closest to him.

Marcia Cross as Lana Holt, Bryan Batt as Bruston Fischer, and Ron Canada as Cyrus Holt.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

August 21, 2023: In case the title of Tawni O’Dell’s dawdling new comedy-drama, Pay the Writer, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, makes you think it’s related to the current writers’ strike, think again. Instead, it’s about a fictional African American novelist, Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada, Network), a Viet Nam vet, famous, financially successful, and highly regarded by the critical establishment (two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize). Dying of a fatal illness, he seeks, albeit reluctantly, to reconcile his differences with those closest to him.  

These are Cyrus’s gay agent of 45 years, the impeccably dressed (always with a pocket square) Bruston Fischer (Bryan Batt, “Mad Men”); his first of four wives, the elegant, still drop-dead gorgeous Lana (Marcia Cross, “Desperate Housewives”); their troubled, grownup children, nice guy Leo (Garrett Turner, Thoughts of a Colored Man) and ice cold Gigi (Danielle J. Summons, Baby); and bon vivant French translator—Cyrus is huge in France—Jean Luc (Steven Hauck, The Velocity of Autumn, his accent one step shy of Inspector Clouseau’s). With one of the male leads Black and the other gay, O’Dell can’t resist dealing with their pasts through the well-worn tropes of racial and homophobic abuse.

Bryan Batt as Bruston Fischer.

Pay the Writer, directed at centipede pace by Karen Carpenter (Love, Loss and What I Wore), takes itself way too seriously over the course of an intermissionless, two-hour slog—occasionally lightened by strained attempts at humor—that doesn’t know when to end. Its thin plot, packed with amateurishly obvious exposition, is structured to intermingle present-day scenes with flashbacks (with the leads played by younger actors). On occasion, but not consistently, Bruston takes on the role of narrator to offer more straightforward background information.

Contrivances abound, like the rationale for why Bruston, regardless of his considerable earnings as an A-list agent, can’t afford to buy his beloved apartment, or why, after a 20-year separation, Lana decides to reenter Cyrus’s life. Hard as these and other devices are to swallow, you’d need a gullet as big as Moby Dick’s to accept the reason for why—in perhaps the biggest setup—Cyrus has broken Bruston’s heart by allowing Jean Luc to read his new book first, when Bruston has always had that privilege. And don’t get me started on the implausibility of what transpires when Cyrus, at Battery Park, encounters a homeless Viet Nam vet (Stephen Payne, Straight White Men) with a beggar’s sign around his neck and a certain book in his bag. 

Danielle J. Summons as Gigi Holt and Ron Canada as Cyrus Holt.

O’Dell, bestselling author of six novels, one of which, Black Roads, she adapted for a film, obviously knows the world of publishing intimately. (Perhaps her movie experience is reflected in an L.A. scene when Cyrus regrets selling out to Hollywood.) But, as so often in plays about great artists, regardless of their field, we have to take it on faith that they’re all they’re cracked up to be; when we get to see or hear samples of their work, the conceit usually crumbles. Thus, on several occasions we not only listen to quotes from Cyrus’s writing, but also listen to him have several Eureka! moments when he is impressed by his own conversational bon mots; worse, in what becomes something of a running joke, he jots down what he’s just said. Perhaps if Pay the Writer were based on an actual author, such self-conscious memorialization might work; here, on the evidence provided, we can only conclude that Cyrus Holt is no James Baldwin. 

Despite the potential in the play’s ruminations on the special needs of the artist vis à vis his responsibilities to his loved ones, and its focus on the regrets of a dying great man, the playwright is never able to raise the work above the sentimental banalities of conventional soap opera. 

Bryan Batt as Burston Fischer and Marcia Cross as Lana Holt.

Each of the leads has done fine work previously, but, given the clichéd artificiality of O’Dell’s characters, none can avoid paper thin, actorish performances. Canada captures little more than Cyrus’s bluster; his portrait of the self-pitying writer, too preoccupied with his work to be a good husband and father, is mostly two-dimensional. The flame-tressed Cross, although lovely to look at, is more attitude than person, while Bratt’s sardonic agent offers little we haven’t seen him do before. Theatrical fakery also prevails every time director Carpenter allows the actors to direct their lines, not to each other, but to the audience, something only appropriate when Bruston assumes the role of narrator. 

There’s also disappointingly little to commend in the design areas. This being an episodic play, set designer David Gallo (aided by Christopher Akerlind’s lighting), makes much use of a rising and falling scrim to shift from locale to locale. His most distinctive images show Cyrus’s living quarters: one displays his 59th Street apartment with an expansive view of Central Park; the other is Cyrus’s book-cluttered, East Village writing studio, which rolls on and off absent the greatest of ease. The foreshortened bed might suit Peter Dinklage, but when Cyrus occupies it, he’s notably scrunched up, if that’s even him under the covers. The others are mostly spare park bench scenes placed against dim skyline (or Statue of Liberty) backdrops; where would modern American drama be without park benches? 

Ron Canada as Cyrus Holt and Stephen Payne as Homeless Man.

Even less successful are David C. Woolard’s costumes; the program notes that Bruston and Jean Luc’s are provided by Brooks Brothers, but whose idea was it to have Bruston go sockless, regardless of what suit he’s wearing? (Might it have something to do with the orthopedic boot I spotted the actor wearing in the lobby before the show began?) Taking a cue from O’Dell’s stage directions for Lana, Leo, and Gigi to be fashionably dressed, he goes a little too far; under the circumstances, the women’s clothing in particular is distractingly out of place. Later, Cyrus wears his bathrobe and pajamas while sitting in the park. Presumably this is a setup for a joke involving the beggar (whose supposedly shabby outfit, btw, is far too pristine). I suspect, though, that someone seeing the world-renowned writer traipsing around Battery Park—nowhere near Cyrus’s East Village digs—thus turned out might consider giving Bellevue a call.

Pay the Writer doesn’t pan out as a play or production, but one hopes its title, at any rate, proves fortuitous for all the Cyrus Holts and Tawni O’Dells presently out there on the picket lines.

Pay the Writer **
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre/Pershing Square Signature Center 
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through September 30, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniel