By Beatrice Williams-Rude


The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will, a “metafictional” comedy on the art of the deal, is a polished gem glittering on East Fourth Street, at The New York International Fringe Festival.

The two-character work was written by Jim Shankman, who also assumes the role of Willy Shotz, a heavy-weight screenwriter. Steven Mark Friedman plays the Hollywood executive, Gabe Weiner, to whom Willy Shotz is attempting to pitch his screenplay.

The writer is dying, quite hilariously, but death hovers nonetheless. He’s stoned, but quite legally he assures his friend/foe/quarry. “I have the paperwork.”

At first it seems Gabe Wiener is not really interested and is simply indulging an old acquaintance with whom he first connected at Princeton. But the tables turn and it develops that Gabe Wiener is desperate to get his hands on the script and was only feigning indifference to keep the price down. Such is the art of the deal.

In one rib-tickling exchange about who goes to see art movies, Gabe shouts that not even the French would sit through…and Willy interjects, “The Swedes!” whereupon Gabe erupts and sputteringly proceeds to list Nordic philosophers: Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Hegel and ends by saying that Wily would turn the studio into an adjunct philosophy department of Princeton.

Steven Mark Friedman and Jim Shankman perform their roles brilliantly and have fascinating material with which to work. Even before he says a word Steven Mark Friedman is the Hollywood mogul incarnate. His elegant attire, from sunglasses down to his shoes, which Willy Shotz notes cost more than his (Willy’s) entire wardrobe, tell us exactly who he is, and his place in the Hollywood hierarchy.

The two men have soliloquys, unheard by one another. Both see themselves as three-dimensional but others as having only two. Gabe Wiener’s riff on sincerity and how his insincerity is genuine hits all the right notes. Willy Shotz’s commentary about life, and second-guessing oneself, and the need for additional lives were one to question all one’s actions. He sees the first life being youth, when the assumption is that one will live forever; then the second when the consciousness of death enters. He then muses on a third life between the two, when all the damage is done, all the crimes committed.

Just about every cliché is used, examined, turned on its head and skewered. Not just showbiz observations, but deeply philosophical concepts.

While this work will appeal to those interested in theater, it will also interest general audiences. At the Aug. 22 performance the laughter was so loud and prolonged, sometimes follow-up lines were lost.

The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will was ably directed by Craig J. George, who is also responsible for the set and particularly effective audio design. ARC Stages is the production company. Running time is 45 minutes with no intermission.

Remaining performances are: Sunday, August 23 @ 9:00 pm; Wednesday, August 26 @ 5:00 pm; and Saturday, August 29 @ 5:15 pm. All at 64 East Fourth Street (Venue #12: 64E4 Underground) between Bowery and Second Ave.

Be warned: Latecomers will not be admitted.