Last year, James Franco’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to a theater that was going to present Kevin Broccoli’s play “James Franco and Me,” insisting they stop marketing the movie star’s name. The theater canceled the production. Yet here it is a year later, being presented at FringeNYC through Sunday with a slightly altered name: “James Franco and Me: An Unauthorized Satire.”
In the two-character play, Kevin Broccoli is in a waiting room of a hospital where his father is dying. James Franco sits down next to him, and they chat.
Before the show begins, Broccoli informs us that “the role of me will be played by me at this performance. And the role of James Franco will not be played by James Franco.” Instead, each night there is a different actor. The night I saw it, the performer was Betsy Rinaldi.
In one way, “James Franco and Me” is catnip for Franco fans. Much of the conversation is about Franco’s career, especially his movies, but also a variety of other projects, such as his Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men (“suddenly you’re a novice in the Olympics,” James says, recounting at length the moment on stage he says he was so intimidated he forgot a line.)
Yes, the James Franco in “James Franco and Me” doesn’t always come off very well. During an early conversation, when they’ve been talking about the Franco movie, “127 Hours,” Kevin suddenly says: “My father is dying…”
“And I didn’t get the Oscar,” James continues, as if Kevin had said nothing. .
“I’m sure it wasn’t personal,” Kevin consoles James, willing to drop the new subject, and any hope of being consoled himself.
“And I was hosting that year…How humiliating is that?”
Yet occasionally, Broccoli directly addresses the audience, telling us that the real James Franco is not as dumb, or bombastic or as self-centered or as foul-mouthed etc. as Rinaldi is portraying him; “I can’t seem to portray him the way he really is..My mind is not where it should be. Nobody else is around. No nurses, no doctors—nothing.”
In such moments, Kevin Broccoli the actor and playwright, and Kevin the character, become inseparable in our minds from what we assume was the actual situation that led to the play — Kevin Broccoli was sitting in a hospital waiting room conjuring up James Franco in his imagination to distract himself and allay his fear while his father was dying. There is something inspired in this; the playwright is using the audience’s own imagination to complete the play.
The play itself sometimes helps drive home this interpretation. Their conversation about “Pineapple Express” (which James calls “a really landmark film”), morphs into a discussion about movies that make money, which segues into James’ wealth, which provokes Kevin to talk about the hospital bills, which prompts James to say: “You’re sitting here talking about finances and money, and meanwhile there’s this powerful moment in your life that you’re, like, totally detached from and it’s really unfortunate, you know?”
“James Franco and Me” is way too long: The Fringe catalogue lists it at 90 minutes, the performance I saw clocked in at 75; it would probably be more effective at 50. It’s also hard to deny that Broccoli’s use of the movie star makes the play more marketable (the intercession of Franco’s lawyers also guaranteed that.) But at its best the play is funny, thought provoking, and even touching, especially when James winds up, in his own way, trying to comfort Kevin. At James’s suggestion, the two characters engage in a little role-playing exercise to prepare Kevin for the inevitable: James plays Kevin and Kevin plays the doctor informing him that his father has died. James goes through the various ways that Kevin can react – ways that are variously amusing, offensive, moving, and spot-on.
Remaining performances of James Franco and Me at the Fringe: Today at 4:30, Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2:45 p.m.