‘Playing God’ gives a sharp, vicious glimpse into what it’s like to be an author

The cast of “Playing God.”
Photo: Amelia Beamish

Playing God
Who The Covey Theatre Company
Where The BeVard Studio, 441 Montgomery St., Syracuse
When Through Nov. 10
Tickets $21
Review by Josh Austin

For the three authors in Playing God, writing a book together isn’t necessarily about the integrity of the work, but about whose name will go above the title. It’s a literary world where the biggest book jacket photo is what matters.

The Covey Theatre presented playwright and director Garrett Heater’s new work, which gives a comically depressing look at what it’s like to be a celebrated author.

For two has-beens and one up-and-comer, writing a book together leads to serious ego stroking, shameless manipulation and the real question, “Why are we doing this?”

One of the authors, Ken Prescott (Lou Balestra) says that it’s possible that the three of them are like driftwood: “When lashed together, it makes a decent raft.”

Heater’s new show is ripe with sarcasm and insecurity. Almost Ibsen-esque, many comments the characters make to each other are cruel and manipulative, veiled in witty banter.

Karis Wiggins as Ann Jackson in “Playing God.”
Photo: Amelia Beamish

As the lights come up, there are three visible homes—three boundary-less, yet isolating creative nooks for the writers. Ranging from chic and sleek to grungy and gross, the authors are cooped up in their spaces for the entirety of the show, almost. Each space defines its character—what they have become. Which, for the most part, is alone, stagnating.

The show follows the creative process as the writers work together, despise each other and form sordid friendships via telephone. Ken is a cherished “chick lit” author; Ann Jackson (Karis Wiggins) is a famed thriller writer; both, kind of forgotten. After all, it’s been “36 months” since Ann has written anything. Paul Caine (Darian Sundberg) is the 23-year-old writing prodigy. His semi-autobiographical book has been a best seller for countless weeks, and he has become known as the “champion of the modern man.”

The jealously is crippling and palpable. No one knows why they are part of this venture, and by the end of the show, it’s still not clear—but it’s better that way.

Throughout the play, as the authors begin to write the book, the audience meets two characters. The Woman, or Emily (Julia Berger), and The Man, or Gilles (Jordan Glaski) are molded to the tastes of the authors. The blossoming plot changes as it travels from inbox to inbox of each writer. The made-up characters begin to reflect the situation the authors are in. Berger is devious and sexy as she interacts with her creators, in particular with Ken. She is seductive, insecure and witty—the brainchild of three literary minds.

Wiggins is the standout performer. Her honest, sincere, occasionally sadist, portrait of a struggling writer is charismatic. She seems to be the only one trying to figure out why she is in this situation. She’s passionate about her writing and expects nothing less from her counterparts.

The Woman (Julia Berger) and The Man (Jordan Glaski) portray the characters that the three authors create.
Photo: Amelia Beamish

Balestra delivers a semi-flamboyant author who is dealing with a dying cat. Ken is a frustrating author who feels he should be revered forever. Speaking in metaphors, Balestra keeps Ken’s motivations hidden until the end—and only then, is there pity for the author.

Sundberg gives a performance that is grungy and poisonous. He always looks stoned and his new “genius” title might be stripped away as it starts to come out that he might have fabricated his semi-autobiographical novel. His role in this authoring partnership is vague, but there’s is something about his character that is still endearing. Sundberg delivers a desperate performance that is disguised as self-deserving smugness.

Heater’s new show is a captivating, fresh work that reexamines the purpose of passion, the concepts of truth and the odd love between characters and authors. The lights are fading out over the writers. It’s hard to tell whom the protagonist and antagonist is in this show, and that’s a good thing. They’re all desperate and they’re all hungry—but for what?

After all, Ken said it best when he stated that they only thing worse than dying is watching yourself die.

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