A new theatre company's first play can be seen as a sort of mission statement. With James Lee's 1956 play Career, about an actor's 25-year struggle to succeed in the business of show, acting teacher John Ruskin's new Group Theatre Company makes a gently pointed debut. Indeed, after so many tawdry, shallow backstagers about the actor's life, it's heartening to find a production with such earnest respect for the lure of the greasepaint, and for the journeymen and women who sacrifice the comforts of stable middle-class life to pursue it. This reverence for the actor's lonely journey comes mostly through director Ruskin's placid, heartful staging and the soft-serve performances; the play itself seems a tart, Odetsian fable about truth-telling vs. sellout, and a production with a sharper tone and tighter pacing might better convey the brutal toll of the actor's marketplace. Instead, in Hugh Fitzgerald's sad, quiet turn as ever-aspiring actor Sam Lawson, we witness the success of an admirable plodder who wins mainly by staying in the game long enough.
When Sam and his young bride (Samantha Thomson) arrive in New York in the midst of the Depression, his tireless but ineffectual efforts to scrounge and schmooze for work, to plan for a future that might not start anytime soon, have a painfully recognizable pathos. Fitzgerald captures the self-defeating mix of diffidence and sense of entitlement, and the tragic eagerness, one often sees in young actors. But as Sam moves up the ladder and loses his way, Fitzgerald goes blank, as does the production. His interplay with his agent (a sympathetic Sharon Repass) starts out snappy and contentious, but soon they're both talking in the calm, worried tones of old pals, even when the dialogue is raving. There's a stronger bond of wary admiration and toxic envy between Sam and director Maury (Michael Laurie).
As a hateful Broadway producer, Gerry Becker is the only cast member with a cutting edge. As his society lush daughter, Tajsha Thomas laughs her way through her ditzy scenes, which somehow makes them less funny. By contrast, James Victor walks away with his drunken scene; Michael Friedman is appropriately needling as Sam's co-waiter, and Val Norton is particularly effective as a bustling, distracted stage manager.
The uncredited costumes are letter-perfect—strong period choices, subtle contrasts—but Ryan Wilson's set feels out of proportion. Still, the production values are high and the ambition laudable for this new theatre company, working in a cozy former hangar near Santa Monica Airport. Ultimately, while Ruskin may have chosen the play as a cautionary message to his students—see, kids, this is what an acting "career" looks like—he pulls the punch, offering instead a loving tribute to the craft.
"Career," presented by and at the Ruskin Group Theatre Company, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 14-Mar. 22. $15-20. (310) 397-3244.