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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Swimming With Sharks
Gielgud Theatre       Autumn-Winter 2007-2008

Michael Lesslie's adaptation of George Huang's 1994 film tells us that everyone in Hollywood is devious and corrupt.

If that's news to you, you will find the play fascinating. But even if you already know this, there's enough wit and stylish performances to carry the evening.

Buddy Ackerman is the Number Three Man in a Hollywood studio, bucking for the Number Two job. He's a master of manipulation whose every word, from 'Hello' on, is a lie - when asked before a big meeting what he's going to say, he replies 'Whatever he wants to hear.'

Buddy is also a master of money-making schlock slasher films, but his big boss has suddenly decided he wants to produce Art. Dawn Lockard is an independent producer who has a prestige script to peddle, but she hates Buddy. Buddy's naive new secretary-gopher Guy is in love with Dawn.

Buddy cons Guy into using his romance with Dawn to steal the film project from her. Meanwhile, Dawn is using Guy to keep tabs on Buddy.

By about a half-hour into the play you'll catch on to the fact that nobody, not even Guy, ever speaks the simple, unmanipulative truth or does anything without a hidden manipulative purpose.

And there is an undeniable dirty pleasure in watching all this. On the other hand, until some rather unlikely melodramatic twists near the end, there aren't too many surprises after the first half-hour just scene after scene of people lying to each other, with the master Buddy controlling everything.

(If any of this sounds familiar, the most immediate antecedent is David Mamet's Speed-The-Plow, though there are also open borrowings from The Player, All About Eve, What Makes Sammy Run and just about every other behind-the-scenes Hollywood expose.)

Christian Slater is an actor of great personal charm, which he uses to make Buddy as seductive to the audience as he is to the other characters. You will repeatedly fall into the trap of hoping that this time Buddy is being honest and sincere, only to be caught again and again by his deviousness.

The roles of Guy and Dawn are underwritten, being little more than pawns and feeds for Buddy - it would have made the play more complex if Guy had learned enough to surpass his master in a real All About Eve way - and Matt Smith and Helen Baxendale can do little more than be serviceable.

Except for a couple of clumsy scene changes, Wilson Milam directs with an appropriately Hollywoodish smoothness and gloss.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Swimming With Sharks - Gielgud Theatre 2007
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