As the lights rise in the Mainspace of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, the audience finds itself in a writers’ room at a major Canadian television network. The four-person writing team is frantic. The deadline to submit scripts for the cop show they are working on is a few days away, yet they are far from ready.
Mostly, this is because their boss, Elsa (Janet-Laine Green), disrupts the process with constant phone calls and emails regarding changes to the script. Elsa is anxious. The network expects Hostages, the series her production company is developing, to be a hit.
These are the opening scenes of Copy That, the latest work by Jason Sherman, an acclaimed writer for stage and screen. Initially, the play seems to be a satire about the pressures of writing for high-stakes television. But this is only partially true.
The main characters are: Peter (Richard Waugh), the older, somewhat world-weary, experienced head writer; Danny (Jeff Lillico), the Jewish member of the team; Colin (Tony Ofori), a black novelist who has no previous experience writing for the small screen; and Maia (Emma Ferreira) a young, biracial woman who recently graduated from film school.
As the team brainstorms ideas, Peter maps episodes and scenes on the board. Thus far, the board is mostly blank. Briefly, he and Danny engage in a two-person volley of ideas, but don’t get far. Generally, Colin and Maia don’t get much opportunity to be heard. Then, Colin steps forward. He has an idea based on personal experience.
Last night, while driving home after work, he was pulled over by police. Colin was not drunk, nor did he break any traffic laws. However, he was driving an expensive car. The police viewed this as evidence of him having committed a crime. There was an argument. Colin was tasered and taken to the police station.
Wounded and angry, Colin is looking for justice. He doesn’t believe he’ll get it in court, so he’s determined to write an episode about his experience for the cop show.
His colleagues are shocked and upset by what happened to him, but reject the idea of exposing racism in the police force. The series they work on is about heroic cops. Evidently, the truth is that money matters more than black lives.
Fair enough. Yet given the mix of persons and the experience each writer brings to his or her work, it seems odd that they don’t mine their personal knowledge or current events for story ideas. Are Jews never slandered? Are women always taken seriously?
Copy That starts out fast-paced and clever, then runs out of steam. Ultimately, the play lacks depth and the satire is tepid.
Jason Sherman’s body of work is proof that he is a strong writer who keenly perceives life’s inanities. It is therefore disappointing to find that he dampened his depiction of how, in life and in art, things change, yet remain the same.
Perhaps he chose to blunt his wit to be able to bring this story to the public. How ironic that would be.
Copy That runs until Dec. 8 at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.