There’s an old adage that says there are only twelve possible plotlines, and Shakespeare wrote them all. The same could be true of network television. The moment a trend has been established, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. In the current climate, crime shows/police dramas are in vogue, and Jason Sherman’s new play Copy That takes us into the hothouse environment of the writers’ room where the latest entry into that genre is being hashed out.
Copy That is clearly a satire with Sherman deliberately filling his own play with the stereotypes and predictabilities that ensure the banality of network television. In fact, one of the most enjoyable features of Copy That is just how many clichés Sherman manages to cram into the play. In short, the substance of Copy That comes from its seeming superficiality. Sherman wants us to guess what is going to happen next because network television is all about the known. After all, it’s cable and streaming services that bring us the new and the different.
The new show that has won network approval is called Hostages, the focus being the six-person team (culturally and gender diverse, of course) that handles hostage situations. Peter (Richard Waugh) is the showrunner, Danny (Jeff Lillico) is the senior writer, while the juniors, Maia (Emma Ferreira) and Colin (Tony Ofori) are there because they are a woman and a Black man who have been foisted upon Peter. There is also the producer Elsa (Janet-Laine Green), who apparently has a great track record in getting shows on the air.
The writers use post-its and diagrams to keep track of the major arc of each show, as well as individual arcs for the hostage team members. For example, one is an alcoholic, another is pregnant, As Copy That opens, they are working on the fourth show, having put the pilot and the first two episodes to bed. Peter and Danny allow a smidgeon of respect for Colin, but poor Maia is relegated to taking notes, and none of her suggestions are even considered. The experienced Peter and Danny, who understand the rules, keep the plots within the accepted limits, for example, none of the Hostages team must ever be viewed as racist.
Elsa, who is a voice on speakerphone until the second act, keeps making impossible demands for changes, which Peter and the writers carry out with unquestioning obedience. How they negotiate this barrage of conflicting information is another fun aspect of Copy That. When a real life incident happens to Colin involving a racist policeman, the tension in an already taut atmosphere increases a hundred-fold, and prejudices and biases within the writers themselves are laid bare. We also witness the backstabbing as each writer is, in reality, out for himself or herself. Elsa also plays them against each other. The conclusion is that a writers’ room is like the court of the Borgias in terms of intrigue and self-advancement.
Director Jamie Robinson has imposed speed to represent pacing, and the first few minutes of the play are incomprehensible as everyone but Waugh garbles his or her lines. When the actors do settle down to proper pacing, you still get the hothouse hive of creativity, but at least you can make out the words. There are some strong performances, particularly from Waugh, and each character does get to show individuality. Elsa is, admittedly over the top, but that is implicit in Sherman’s writing. Rachel Forbes’ set is suitably scruffy, while Jareth Li’s lighting is all bright lights and no shadows.
As amusing as Copy That is, there are some serious things going on. We see the writers toss concepts around as they struggle to create the fourth show, but we know that all their ideas have been done a million times before. The agony and ecstasy of creation is undermined by the shallow limits of their muted imaginations.
Tarragon Theatre, Copy That, by Jason Sherman, directed by Jamie Robinson, Tarragon Mainspace, Nov. 6 to Dec. 8, 2019.