In an initial prologue, “Action Hero,” Theatre Rhinoceros’ goofy new comedy by artistic director John Fisher, suggests just what its title implies: a cartoony look at a film genre.
That’s because it starts out with a cleverly staged fist fight, seen under strobe lights, accompanied by vocal effects: Boom! Pow!
But Fisher has other things in mind, from a fraught father-son relationship to the environmental history of the City of Angels.
Narrated by a conflicted, sometimes vulnerable Jason (Gabriel A. Ross), the story follows him and his less introspective buddy Cranston (Jake Soss, who also plays a few other small roles), as aspiring young actors struggling in Los Angeles.
They’re marking time, and making a few bucks, by appearing in a theater production that parodies “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (Fisher appears in these scenes, rather extraneously, even self-indulgently, as a wise drag queen.)
Along the way, Jason occasionally meets for drinks with his blustering capitalist father (Fisher, excellent here), who partially supports him financially.
When, by lucky chance, Jason and Cranston connect with Clark (an only somewhat convincing Fisher as a swaggering, thrill-seeking action star and avid, Tom Cruise-like Scientologist who’s also “Hollywood’s biggest closet case”), the intrepid pair find themselves on an unexpected adventure.
Without giving away too much, what follows are very physical scenes of outdoor disasters — a 6.4 earthquake, a house fire and so on — that provide opportunity for lessons about what Jason terms L.A.’s “secret and mysterious history,” specifically its appalling environmental legacy. We Californians are cannibals, Jason asserts, like the Donner party.
Fisher has crammed plenty of interesting ideas into this 90-minute show — in fact, too many.
And what with writing the script and playing three roles, he’s neglected the important task of directing this very active play in a way that’s suited to a tiny space and with extremely low production values.
The result is that actors are all too often stranded, talking to each other on a completely bare stage with nothing else to do — and Ross and Soss, despite some nice interaction, are not comfortable enough physically to pull it off.
At other times, they’re pretending to jump off cliffs, be carried away by a sort of tsunami, or race breathlessly for miles, occasionally in a blackout for some reason — none of it, despite the promise of the prologue, staged with wit or ingenuity.
Fisher’s abundant ideas and concept need a new directorial eye.
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes July 6
Tickets: $20 to $40
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.therhino.org