The set is spare — backlit mountains serve as marquee to the bright letters spelling out “Hollywood” — as the props shift to reflect the changing emotions of an age-old tale of a girl who yearns for stardom. This girl, whose Hollywood agent transforms from Jenna Kitzelbaum to Lucy Gardener (attesting to her Garden State origins and breasts the size of Ava Gardner’s), becomes a lead in “The Ten O’Clock Teenage Rebel” after winning a Miss Teenage Hollywood Contest.
The outlines of the plot of “The Star” by Marvin Harold Cheiten, playing at Theatre Intime through Sunday, August 24, are familiar, even as the remade Lucy’s frothy blond curls remind us vaguely of Marilyn Monroe: Innocent teenage girl from Margate, star of the hometown high school theater crowd, moves to Hollywood; makes good, sort of; suffers from the dehumanizing treatment of her voracious agent and producer; spirals into alcoholism. But she also wises up, and in an unexpected turn at the end (mild spoiler alert), pulls herself together and is able to separate true love from the fawning of her fans.
The movement of the play is quick, oiled by humor, and the plot unfolds in small vignettes — detailed snapshots that leave the audience to fill in the blanks about any emotional development that occurs off stage.
Our first glimpse of Jenna, played with finesse and pizzazz by Joanne Nosuchinsky, is in a sparkly prom dress, standing outside the gym and singing to an imagined audience. When her boyfriend, Bill (Ryan Curtis), follows her out the gymnasium door, she confesses her dreams of going to Hollywood and he promises to get her there through a loan from his college money.
Early on and through most of the action, Bill plays the sensible hometown boy, the realist to Jenna’s journey into the realm of illusion. As the action progresses, Bill, who accompanies Jenna to Hollywood, develops from an inexperienced, nay, slightly awkward and uncertain high-school graduate, to a man who has learned what his values are and is ready to stand up for them, come what may.
Jenna’s dream of Hollywood is fueled, perhaps in large part, by her experience of a broken family — an alcoholic ne’er-do-well father and a mother who deserted the family. Although she is a talented actress, it is Jenna’s unfulfilled needs that drive her to accept whatever humiliation Hollywood throws at her — assenting to whatever is necessary to achieve her goal.
Early on she falls prey to Joe (Jason Szamreta), an agent who promises to help her achieve success yet is interested only in his own success. Immediately Joe and his costume designer, Emily Nestor (Franny Silverman), start the remake, transforming the simply but chicly dressed girl with long brown hair into a curly-haired blonde sexpot in showy, sexier attire — a total look that is so extreme as to undercut the stereotype by making it funny.
With a new persona and a new name — and, by the way, a posh suite at the Hilton created with cartoonlike cardboard furniture — Lucy, aka Jenna, starts to lose her sense of self and turns to alcohol.
Again, though, Cheiten adds humor. The first time Lucy appears drunk in public — and she’s an expert at playing the lush, which works to her advantage at the play’s climax — is as a guest on the Steevie Purvis Show. She can’t stop calling him Larry (King) and can barely stand up straight, but her “act” is so over the top that her public is amused. The part of Steevie — as well as the roles of Lucy’s producer, an actor, and Lucy’s father — is played by Ken Schwarz.
Similarly when her popularity earns her the opportunity to present an Oscar (for the most abstruse of categories), the audience gets a double whammy of humor. Lucy’s hair is now red and the dress more slutty than fun — the more vampy threads a result of her dropping Emily, a good egg who has a crush on Bill, for a Hollywood icon because she is jealous. But Lucy is partnered on the Oscars with a hillbilly from Appalachia, who was a finalist on American Idol, and who talks about “clinging to guns and religion” — sound familiar? — and Lucy gets carried off the stage after making a plea with the audience to send ice to her to fight global warming.
If all’s well that end’s well, boy gets girl, and everyone realizes that authentic emotion is where it’s at, playwright Cheiten’s work still raises serious questions about maintaining identity in a world where success can require more than hard work. Probably the most moving line in the show is when Lucy notes that every time she looks in the mirror, she sees less of herself. In a toast to a world where understanding and sensitivity is only skin deep, Cheiten has Bill urge Lucy to have her vision checked. No wonder the palpable sense of relief as the lights of the word “Hollywood” at the rear of the set are clicked off as the actors leave the stage.
The Star, Friday through Sunday, August 22 to 24, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. World premiere written by Princeton resident Marvin Harold Cheiten. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $16 to $20. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.