From writer/director Marc Unger comes the episodic Thespian starring himself as Adam Kelner, a 50-year-old Baltimore comedian, who in a mid-life crisis, gives up on his stagnant stand-up career to pursue dramatic acting, a passion from long ago.
Unger’s story is split into eight 15-minute episodes starting with his final lackluster stand-up performance and ending with his return to theater in a play about the Freddie Gray protests. Along the way Kelner gets support from his devoted “breadwinner” wife, Abby (Nikki Cozart), friends from his acting class—specifically Phoebe (Chelsea Foster), who wrote the play, and acting coach Petra Antonelli (Sasha Carrera). At one point, Kelner lets his pride get in the way of Antonelli’s constructive criticism, and she becomes a roadblock for Kelner to getting a role in the musical as Antonelli has just become its director.
“…gives up on his stagnant stand-up career to pursue dramatic acting…”
While Thespian tells a solid story of a man making a vocational course correction at fifty, the film firmly walks the plank of mediocrity. Its energy level flatlines at a level of six throughout when its energy really should hum at an eight with periodic bursts of eleven.
Watching the series, I had a hard time holding interest in it. The story and characters are solid for the most part but lacked excitement. I couldn’t help but think Thespians just doesn’t go “far enough” in many aspects. From a character development standpoint, the conflicts (or stakes) don’t go “far enough” to make it interesting. The humor mined from his acting class and exercises, don’t go “far enough” to be funny or memorable. By “far enough,” I’m simply wishing that Adam’s conflicts had a higher impact on him as a person and his struggle to succeed in his new pursuit. It needed to go two or three steps further than it actually did. Humor-wise, if you’re going to make the controversial choice to put on a Freddie Gray protest play then you’ve got to double-down and go for broke and not just say it’s a Freddie Gray protest play.
“Rather than carry your characters gently across the finish line, make them work for it…”
Overall, the acting is decent but needs to be elevated, particularly if there’s a second season. The dialogue feels heavily scripted, and this piece is perfect to allow some improvisational freedom from the actors. I tell improvisers this all the time, it’s not enough for characters to merely have a job, an accent, and a few quirks. They need a backstory that justifies why these quirks exist. The backstory creates depth and makes the writing process and ultimately the story more interesting.
Ironically, Thespian suffers from the same fate that Kelner faces in the story. It plays it way too safe. Rather than carry your characters gently across the finish line, make them work for it.
Thespian (2018) Written and directed by Marc Unger. Starring Marc Unger, Nikki Cozart, Chelsea Foster, Sasha Carrera.
5 out of 10 stars