Furiously contemporary, curiously traditional -- that's 'Geniuses'; Geniuses. Comedy by Jonathan Reynolds. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez.
New York — Color it furiously contemporary and curiously traditional, and you will have a fair idea of the palette mix in the uproarious, sometimes outrageous new satirical drama at Playwrights Horizons. For its immediate reference point, Jonathan Reynolds's ''Geniuses'' recalls such recent cinematic sagas as the shooting of Francis Ford Coppola's ''Apocalypse Now'' in the Philippines. Instead of a Vietnam war movie, however, the Reynolds film crew is working on a tale of carnage and combat in Angola.
Stranded in a jungle guesthouse in the path of an oncoming typhoon are the film's acidulous writer (Michael Gross), stalled by a massive writing block; a would-be actress (Joanne Camp), who may be more than the sex object and walking California cliche that is evident at first; a bearded makeup man (Kurt Knudson), who imagines himself a Hemingway look-alike and spouts accordingly; and a legendary set designer (David Rasche), whose misogyny turns brutal in the course of this Maytime ordeal. The odd foursome is served by a Filipino bodyguard (Thomas Ikeda), the cheerful, archetypical Oriental of stage and screen.
''Geniuses'' is so traditional that it has three acts, a linear plot (allowing for digressions and diversions), and a surprise Act II climax when things turn viciously nasty. The third act marks the heralded arrival of the comedy's chief ''genius,'' director Milo McGee McGarr (David Garrison), whose real passion is for making deals. At the same time, Mr. Reynolds introduces a character unfoldment not unworthy to be compared to Billie Dawn's awakening in ''Born Yesterday.''
In fact, with all its pertinent impertinence, ''Geniuses'' keeps harking back to an earlier era of American popular comedy -- recalling moments from such pungent satires as ''The Man Who Came to Dinner'' and ''Once in a Lifetime.'' In this respect, call it a homage.m
Yet Mr. Reynolds proves to be very much his own man, with his running sound and sight gags, self-propelled metaphorical flights, and jokes of all kinds. If he gets carried away (and he does), the fault is one of exuberant inventiveness. Watching ''Geniuses'' recalled an opinion stated 20 years ago by critic Louis Kronenberger about Neil Simon. Writing (in ''Best Plays of 1960-61'') about ''Come Blow Your Horn,'' with which Simon debuted and scored a hit, Kronenberger said: ''When he spurns a last-minute eraser and uses a blue pencil throughout, Mr. Simon may win real plaudits.''
But Mr. Reynolds has already won his share of plaudits. ''Geniuses'' marks a signal advance in his status as a writer of sharp, devastatingly comic social satire. His present work is a healthy put-down of all so-called ''geniuses,'' and he writes the dialogue to prove it.
Like all genuine comedy, this one is based on true observation. For instance, McGarr's paean to the joys of business could, if delivered with only a shade of difference, bring stars to the eyes of a chamber of commerce audience. He writes the kinds of speeches that galvanize actors, and the cast directed by Mr. Gutierrez responds with enormous skill and gusto. Miss Camp in particular is something else and something special.
Andrew Jackness has provided a ramshackle enclosed setting with vistas of palms and mountains through the windows. Between James F. Ingalls's lighting, the storm effects of Esquire Jauchem and Gregory Meeh, and the thunderings devised by Scott Lehrer, the spectator shares vicariously the location ordeal. The fights staged by B. H. Barry provide their own comment on a world of cinema and TV entertainment obsessed with violence. Ann Emonts costumed the production. Playwrights Horizons scores again.