For years, the promising young actress-turned-playwright Bess Wohl (“Small Mouth Sounds”) has been trying to write a play about one of the biggest issues of our era: climate change. But it wasn’t until she spent time on the set of the 2018 Netflix movie “Irreplaceable You,” which she wrote and produced, that she hit upon an ingenious way into the subject.
And so the thoughtful and hilarious “Continuity,” which opened Tuesday at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II space, takes place on the set of a big-budget Hollywood thriller that is going wrong on many, many levels. The filmmakers started with the best of intentions — dramatizing the effects of our environmental crisis to wake up the masses.
But as the self-centered, just-out-of-rehab movie star (Megan Ketch) notes early on, “Suddenly we’re on a styrofoam iceshelf in the desert of New Mexico because of tax rebates and the snow is made of plastic and it’s a thousand degrees.”
The absurdity and the compromises to cliché don’t stop there: The leading man is a tattooed slab of Texas beefcake fresh from a hit vampire TV show (Alex Hurt), while a RADA-trained actress (Jasmine Batchelor) plays an underwritten scientist character who wears glasses because “she’s the scientist, she’s always in glasses.”
Blame the studio, including a too-young exec who “probably thinks Fellini is a pasta” — in the words of the calmly efficient Maria (Rosal Colón), an indie veteran who’s been given a chance to direct her first big studio movie and wants to prove she can do it — and create a movie that makes a difference.
But in a series of “takes,” Wohl continually manages to upend our expectations — both about the movie-within-a-play and about the dynamics among these classic Hollywood “types,” who also include Maria’s Hollywood-golden-boy ex (Darren Goldstein), the hilariously and quietly efficient PA who keeps having to replace broken setpieces (Garcia) and an earnest on-set science adviser (Max Baker) who’s content to chow down on free food until he’s asked his opinion on the film’s preposterous plot.
“I hardly have to explain to people making a Hollywood movie how things can sort of spiral out of control,” that science adviser reminds everyone, explaining how the Earth is stuck in a “positive feedback loop” that makes small measures like recycling ultimately useless. Whether you’re saving a film shoot, or saving the planet, there comes a point when it may just be too little, too late.
Rachel Chavkin directs “Continuity” with a fine balance between artificiality and realism, consistent with Wohl’s script — which has iceberg-like depths beneath all its surface pleasures.