Have you ever considered what would you might do to salvage your sinking career?
How about taking part in a film that puts you in a compromising position in the most literal of terms?
In Neil LaBute’s play “The Money Shot,” that’s the question facing Steve and Karen, two fading Hollywood stars whose outsized egos take center stage wherever they go, much to the dismay of their respective long-suffering spouses who are inevitably dragged along for the ride. LaBute’s 2014 Off-Broadway play is currently enjoying its Long Island premiere in a Center Stage production at the Southampton Cultural Center.
Joan Lyons directs this four-hander, which runs through February 5 and stars Joseph Marshall as Steve, the aging action-film star who refuses to admit that he’s over 50, and Bonnie Grice as Karen, his vain on-screen costar. Karen has endorsement deals for everything from Viking stoves to perfume, and though she’s living well and milking her fame for all it’s worth, she wouldn’t mind being in a new hit film to prop up her gigantic ego a bit.
For that reason, Steve and Karen are working together on an action-adventure flick called “Jack Hammer,” which also happens to be the name of Steve’s on-screen character. They both believe their careers could be catapulted back into the stratosphere if they create some buzz by engaging in a real-life love scene for the camera.
But first, they agree to run the idea by their respective spouses and lay out the ground rules about what acts are — and aren’t — permissible on screen. So Steve and his beautiful young wife Missy (Tamara Salkin) come to Karen’s L.A. home, which she shares with her new significant other, Bev (played by Kristin Whiting), to work through the intimate details.
Though it’s supposed to be a casual dinner with a little negotiation in the mix, tensions are high from the get-go. These are people who are definitely not on the same page — especially the strong willed feminist lesbian Bev, who feels Karen doesn’t defend their relationship with the enthusiasm she should, and the macho misogynist Steve, who treats his ditsy wife as if she were a shiny object that he has to protect from corrupting forces, including too many caloric laden appetizers.
You can tell early on that this is going to be a long evening, and initial politeness dissolves quickly as blow-ups ensue over minor debates brought on by misinformation. For example, when Steve explains that the film’s director is from Belgium, he pronounces it as “Bell-ghee-um” with a hard “g,” insisting the country is outside the boundaries of Europe and is in an entirely different region known as the “European Union.”
Yes, he’s that kind of guy, and the script is amazingly prescient in that most of Steve’s arguments lie in the land of something very akin to “alternative facts” — a term that didn’t even exist two weeks ago. His phone is proof and throughout the play, he resorts to various questionable websites to back him up on his less than factual claims. Meanwhile, the over-educated Bev shakes her head in amused disgust at Steve’s ignorance. She is clearly losing patience with him.
From that point on, the evening devolves into a slinging of insults from one couple to the other, and even within the couples themselves. These people are obviously not entirely secure in their own relationships, despite their outward show of confidence, success and solidarity.
The four actors all have nice on-stage chemistry and they work well together as a team during the many interactions that heighten the tension. The extreme emotional baggage they each bring to the piece soon weighs them down in ways that lead to anger, tears and wagers that will ultimately put them all to the test.
But perhaps the most intriguing character in the lot is Missy, the 23-year-old aspiring actress, who spends much of the evening quietly avoiding the fray and sneaking snacks since Steve is monitoring her food intake “for her own good” as he notes.
Ms. Salkin is hilarious in the role of the blonde bimbo who, as time goes on, reveals that she is the real power broker in the room. Toward the end of the second act, she takes charge in a way that leaves us silently cheering her on while her bully of a husband is left groveling. Eventually, the tables turn, and the massive egos are knocked down to size, as well they should be.
Ultimately, that’s what makes “The Money Shot” a true tour-de-force. LaBute goes in heavily for shock value, so if you’re the type of person who’s easily offended by strong language or graphic innuendo, this is not the show for you.
But if you enjoy theater that questions human nature and explores the “us against them” mentality that has come to define everything from class and gender, to social standing and political correctness, this may just be right up your alley.
But be forewarned: Leave the kids at home for this one — it is recommended for ages 17 and up.
Center Stage’s production of “The Money Shot” runs Thursday, February 2 at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, February 3 and 4 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 5 at 2:30 p.m. the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $22 ($12 for students under 21 with ID).
A three-course dinner theater package is available Thursday through Saturday at the Plaza Café, 61 Hill Street, Southampton. The cost is $59 and includes a three course dinner and a ticket to the show. To reserve, call the cultural center at (631) 287-4377 or visit www.scc-arts.org.