Amanda Peet once said, “As an actor, my main focus is finding good writing and attacking a good role,” and her acting credits reflect that philosophy. A familiar face on episodic television programs such as The Good Wife, How I Met Your Mother, and Brockmire, Peet has also racked up an impressive list of screen credits in such films as Syriana, The X Files: I Want to Believe, The Whole Nine Yards, and Something’s Gotta Give. Twice named as one of the sexiest women in the world, Peet is far from just another pretty Hollywood face as she has emerged as a gifted playwright. The proof of the pudding is in her second theatrical work, Our Very Own Carlin McCullough, a fascinating play currently on stage at the Geffen Playhouse.
The story predominantly centers around three characters – Carlin as the 10-year-old tennis protégé, excellently played by Abigail Dylan Harrison, her ambitious mother, Cyn, played by Mamie Gummer, and Jay the tennis coach, played by the most delightful Joe Tippett, whose pure characterization could stand as an acting lesson on how to develop a character organically with no false layering. While Gummer gives a creditable performance, it would be so much stronger if she eliminated all the quirky character traits including her constant tics and grimaces and stripped down her characterization to its pure essence. The days of the Sandy Dennis style of acting are long gone. The other characters include Carlin at 17, well played by Caroline Heffernan, and Salif, a tennis coach effectively performed by Tyee Tilghman.
Carlin easily wins every competitive tennis match and mom quickly becomes aware that her young daughter is a potential tennis champion and makes a deal with coach Jay to take over her training. As in any well-written play, conflict on how to turn this young girl into a champion erupts, with sexual tension building between the two adults. Carlin and her coach immediately bond and a loving, but disciplined relationship, is formed. But, there is conflict between mom and Jay and she constantly interferes offering counter suggestions, one of which will have negative consequences. It becomes a tug of war to see who has greater control over this young girl. Her coach wants Carlin to enter amateur tennis tournaments explaining that if she took one penny, she would be ineligible for a college tennis scholarship which he said would be a slam dunk. There are lots of laugh lines from her overbearing mother such as “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you win.” Jay trains his protégée with deep love and caring and tries to protect her from her mother’s growing ambitions. He fills Carlin’s young brain with unpressured direction to prevent her from burning out before she becomes the champion that he knows she can be. To relax her before a match, “You’re here to compete, not to win.”
Cyn and Jay have some awkward moments growing out of their mutual attraction, which Jay holds at bay. Drinking heavily, Cyn playfully comments, “I would love to have a boyfriend but I’m in a committed relationship with alcohol.” The three travel together for different competitions and due to budget restrictions, share a single room with Jay sleeping on a folding bed. One night, Carlin decides she wants to sleep on the folding bed leaving no place for Jay other than to share the bed with her mother and as he climbs into bed, there’s a black out so we don’t know if they do the deed.
During one competition, Cyn meets Salif, a tennis coach who recognizes Carlin’s brilliance. He criticizes her present coach’s training and suggests that her daughter attend a tennis academy, which would be tuition free and where she would be put through vigorous training in preparation for future champion matches. Jay is furious and totally against this move. He argues that if she sends her daughter to the academy, there will be devastating results. However, mom is seduced by the appealing financial benefits and despite Jay’s intense objections, agrees to send her daughter to the academy. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what happens in the ensuing years and that Jay was correct in his dire predictions. Although you might figure out the consequences, Peet’s writing is so compelling that you become riveted to what unfolds on that stage, where the action takes place in three different settings excellently designed by Tim Mackabee: Cyn’s kitchen, a motel room, and outside a tennis court.
At the top of Act II, Carlin is now 17, has given up tennis, and is not in good shape. She has a foot injury and is burned out from the rigorous training she underwent at the academy. Just as Jay predicted, her playing became disastrous because she didn’t play the game the way he trained her and at this point her old coach is back in the picture. Carlin then receives an offer to attend college on a full scholarship and both her mother and Jay encourage her to sign the contract, which she eventually declines, opting to train with her coach to go pro. There is a tender moment when Carlin tries to seduce Jay, which results in an unexpected outcome.
I’ve sat through many plays with a weak Act II, but thanks to Peet’s extremely well crafted script, and the sharp, sensitive direction of Tyne Rafaeli, the action moves smoothly. Even if you don’t understand technical tennis terms, Our Very Own Carlin McCullough is a fascinating, unique story that will hold your attention to the very last piece of dialogue. One hopes that Peet is already at the computer working on her next play, which I eagerly look forward to seeing.
“Our Very Own Carlin McCullough”
The Audrey Skirball Theatre The Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90024
Playwright: Amanda Peet
Director: Tyne Rafaeli
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Original Music & Sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Run: Tuesdays-Fridays: 8:00 pm Saturdays: 3:00 pm & 8:00 pm Run: Sunday: 2:00 pm: & 7:00 pm
Closing: Sunday, July 29, 2018
Tickets: $60-85, Students: $25 310.208.5454 or click here.
Click here for Beverly Cohn’s review of “The Humans.”