With a title like “Pay The Writer” you might think that this is a play about just that, or about the tension between writers and, well, everyone else.  You would be wrong.
This is a play about a relationship between one writer, Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada) and his agent Bruston Fisher (Bryan Batt) – with names like that how could each be anything but?
These two have known each other for decades. Bruston is gay and Cyrus is black, so they have each weathered the storms of prejudice. They met when Bruston was thrown out of a bar for being gay.  Cyrus was there and the two connected pretty fast.  Bruston took the manuscript Cyrus was peddling, spotted talent and helped usher Cyrus through several prizes that built a career that lead to an apartment on Central Park South.  Now Cyrus is dying and Bruston wants to shepherd his last book. Only trouble is, Cyrus, for the first time, has not given him the manuscript but passed it on to his French interpreter Jean Luc (Steven Hauck).  This is more or less the nugget of the story, and it is not a strong one.  There is only so much kvetching a pair of people can do with no visible change in circumstances.
There is also Cyrus’s ex-wife Lana (Marcia Cross) and their two children Gig (Danielle J. Summons) and Leo (Garrett Turner) to consider.  The family has pretty much disintegrated and Cyrus is making feeble attempts to make things right.
These are all excellent toe holds for a story, but the script is on the flat side.  It moseys along with very little action and a lot of reminiscing.  A lot of exposition.  A lot of explaining.  The result is that instead of getting to know these characters, we get to know about them.  That is not the same thing.  In real life, folks talk in code.  Sentences jump out in no particular order.  We go off the rails and then try to figure out the next step without quite understanding how we got there.  With this script every word is laid out like a brick on a garden path.  There is no danger lurking.  There is  no mystery.  There are no surprises that rock our world.  Just a long and sad unwinding.
As for the acting, well, it is acting. None of the actors’ work (with the exception of Miles G. Jackson (as the young Bruston) felt transparent.  At the same time no one seemed committed to being there.  They all appeared slightly absent minded.  Like the title of the play that does not come from a conflict between to characters, but instead is written on a fly leaf as a snub to the recipient – everything that happened in this play felt like an afterthought.
I know the actors were doing the best they could, but it just may be that between the text, the set and women’s costumes that defied sense in so many ways, and the direction that felt unfocused they had little on which to hang their hats.
Not everyone felt as I did, however.  I must say that the most of the rest of the audience approved of the goings on.  Lots of laughs and a few sighs of empathy as Bruston guided us through what was really his story all along.
Which is why theatre beguiles us.  It only seats one inside our heads.  For as many people who are in the audience, that is how many different shows are being seen at the same time.   On the night in question the show I saw disappointed my high hopes.
Pay the Writer by Tawni O’Dell, and directed by Karen Carpenter.
WITH Bryan Batt as Bruston, Ron Canada as Cyrus, Marcia Cross as Lana, Steven Hauck as Jean Luc, Miles G. Jackson as Young Bruston/Taz, Garrett Turner Young Cyrus, Danielle J. Summons Gigi, Stephen Payne as Homeless Man.
Scenic design is by David Gallo, costume design is by David C. Woolard, lighting design is by Tony Award winner Christopher Akerlind
At Signature Theatre Through Sept. 30 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; www.paythewriterplay.com. Running time: 2 hours.