You don't have to be madly in love with the art of live theater, or deeply disappointed in what it's become, to enjoy Anton in Show Business, but bringing a bit of theatrical love-hate into the auditorium definitely helps. Like the hilarious, theater-besotted cable series Slings & Arrows, 2000's Anton, by mysterious playwright Jane Martin (believed to be a pseudonym for theater legend Jon Jory), is a giddy string of backstage inside jokes, deconstructionist head games and bittersweet theater-world observations.
Opening with the line, "American theater is in a shitload of trouble," the cleverly constructed play aims to explain exactly why that is true while celebrating all that is still good and wonderful about people playing make-believe on a stage in front of strangers. The play just opened a four-week run in a production by the Pacific Alliance Stage Company, directed with great sensitivity to the underlying issues by Hector Correa.
In a playfully snarky homage to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Anton begins with the stage manager (Nicole Brewer) setting the theater world scene, as a pair of actresses--the seasoned Casey (Alexandra Matthew) and the exuberant newbie Lisabette (Christina Vecchiato)--meet to audition for a regional theater production of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters.
The production has already attached Holly (Laurie Keith), a shallow but famous television actress. Everything is pitched slightly larger than life at first, with the show's 15 characters played by a total of six female actors (well, seven, including an exasperated audience member, played by Maria Grazia Affinito, who keeps interjecting her own opinions throughout the play). Joan Mankin and Shannon Veon Kase play all the other roles, from the snotty British director (Mankin), who makes his actors audition using nonsense words ("Tiddly-pee, tiddly-poo"), to a comically irritating, Chekhov-loving theater producer (Kase), who compromises her art in the interest of big box office. Alternately hilarious and moving, Anton is packed with great ideas and hard questions, as fearful of the future of American theater as it is hopeful that art will somehow survive the barbarian assaults of commerce, crassness and audience disinterest.
Anton in Show Business runs Thursday-Sunday through April 15 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. $18-$21; Thursdays, $16. 5409 Snyder Lane in Rohnert Park. 707.588.3400.