Jon Robin Baitz’s “Mizlansky/Zilinksy” begins with a paraphrase of Genesis. Like so much in Hollywood, the paraphrase may bring in the audience, but it muffles the effect of the original story.
There is one moment in the play, however, when one man “does the right thing” even though it will scuttle his financial salvation. Too bad this moment is brief and unresolved.
The play’s exposition is revealed by two showbiz types lunching on Thai-Mex cuisine. Lionel the actor (Richard Kline) and Alan the writer (George Wyner) gossip about Mizlansky (Michael Lerner) and Zilinksy (David Groh), former business partners who made 1960s “B” movies. The IRS has come knocking, and Mizlansky is proposing a tax shelter trafficking in “B” movies of Bible stories.
Meanwhile, at his granite-and-glass home, Mizlansky plots his financial recovery. He is tethered by voices of restraint from his lawyer (Maury Ginsberg) and his gofer (Will McCormack), and prodded by the Oklahoman head of an investment consortium (Wayne Rogers).
Thusly set up, the story inches forward, crowded with references to L.A. and its lifestyle, so crowded that one wonders whether it could play in Pomona, let alone Peoria. Hollywood clichs, anti-Semitism, homophobia, superficial chit-chat and overarching Biblical references mix well but don’t propel this unfocused work.
Some of the dialogue takes place via speakerphone and, not surprisingly, is made incomprehensible, not because of low volume but because of the nature of speakerphones. It makes a funny, momentary gag, but an audience should not struggle to hear large portions of dialogue.
When Mizlansky and Zilinsky first appear together onstage, they stand in one corner of the stage, not moving, not even swapping places. It looks like a Vaudeville routine, minus the jokes. Lines seem to be repeated, possibly to make sure the audience “gets” it, but it makes Lerner seem to have lost his place.
Kline plays only the superficialities of his character. Still, in combination with direction and writing, his Lionel is the only character to stand up for his beliefs and walk out on cash. The Oklahoman money source says he wants to see the other players in the deal “Jew” him out of a fee. The rest will swallow the insult, but not Lionel. It is at that point the play becomes something universally meaningful and touching. For those other characters, however, who make their own bigoted statements, including, “The goyim love this crap,” it may be cosmic karma.
The thoughtful sets (Karyl Newman) and lighting (Geoff Korf) evoke additional scorn for L.A. Before the play even begins, a boxed palm tree laden with white twinkle lights is also uplit in hot pink. The buildings are steely, stony, artistic industrial-style cold. So program notes indicating the action takes place in L.A. are superfluous, at least for this audience.
Simultaneously attracting and distracting, however, are the floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of Mizlansky’s living room, which look upon a panorama of Century City. When the play slackens, one’s eye is drawn to the familiar buildings.
To top off his insults to L.A. theater, Baitz has a character refer to the works of Tom Stoppard as “very frothy.” By the play’s end, one can’t help but feel Baitz is a pot calling the whole foundry black.
“Mizlansky/Zilinksy” runs through April 23 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village. Tel. 310.208.5454.