If you were to make a list of the worst anniversary presents of all time, the one that Brandon (Barrett Doyle) gives his wife Anessa (Heather Rule) in the smart new play “Let’s Make It” probably would rank pretty close to the top. It’s not just that it’s a day or two late, but, as we learn in the opening scene of Atlanta playwright Grant McGowen’s world premiere at Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre through March 2, it’s a particularly unwelcome gift presented in an already tense and tenuous situation.
Brandon is an aspiring filmmaker and Anessa is an actress (read: trouble ahead), and Brandon makes a present to her of his latest script. The new script, a departure from the light, skit-like comedies he usually writes, is based on real life: her real life. Anessa’s career, unlike Brandon’s, is gathering steam — she’s almost a small-time celebrity — but it’s a questionable sort of success. She’s mostly being asked to show more and more skin in small indie flicks that Brandon defensively denigrates as soft-core porn.
It’s a tough path for her to navigate, and it’s made even harder by the fact that Brandon’s career has stalled. His script, which dramatically details Anessa’s real past of addiction and abuse, is his “brilliant” idea of how they can work together to make something of value. Anessa, who has no interest in further exposing herself by dragging her private life into the grabby world of films, calls the script “the worst piece of shit” she’s ever read “in human f—ing history.”
It’s fair to say she doesn’t like it. And unfortunately for Brandon, there’s no way to take it back.
The two-character play has a skillfully tight focus — all the action takes place in a few scenes in Brandon and Anessa’s apartment — and the actors do an especially fine job of limning the ins and outs of a strong relationship that’s undergoing a trial by fire. McGowen nicely paces the story’s smart and interesting developments; the turns are always surprising and convincingly evoked. Things get more complicated as big producers show an interest in the script. It really becomes the gift that keeps on giving . . . problems.
It’s pretty engrossing stuff. A play about a writer and his script probably sounds like it would be too self-reflexive and “inside baseball” to be interesting. But Doyle and Rule manage to make their characters likeable and understandable, even when they’re completely at odds. McGowen likewise knows how to keep the dramatic heat turned to a perfect slow slimmer.
One of the play’s strengths is its tight, laser-like micro view. It’s never overly broad or melodramatic in its scope, but this actually might become a bit of a weakness, too. The work is so smartly written and executed that it could have accommodated more ambition. We never feel that we pull back to see the larger picture, the broader significance the play’s unfolding of events might contain.
The ending is intriguingly open-ended, but many will feel that it’s far too abrupt. The play is a great psychological pressure cooker, but it never quite reaches outside that apartment and that relationship enough to show us how this little hothouse environment relates to a larger world. There are three scenes in “Let’s Make It,” and I was curious to see a fourth, to have that final puzzle piece click satisfyingly into place and to step back and see it all as one complete, telling picture.
Still, it’s wonderfully strong work from a small but mighty company that gives Atlanta some of its best contemporary theater.