“Girls Talk” is Roger Kumble’s latest play about narcissistic Hollywood power brokers, but the sardonic black comedy is not set within the studio system. Rather, it revolves around status-climbing mommies embroiled in their own power plays: nanny poaching, and — in the most cutthroat game of all — securing coveted spots for their tots in the elite day schools. They are specifically Jewish moms whose children attend the fictional Temple Jerusalem preschool in Los Angeles.
Lori Rosen (Brooke Shields) is an ex-television writer who has given up her career to mother three children, and she must choose between co-chairing the school’s annual fundraiser or going back to work (meaning that her daughter may never “do” school in this town again). Claire (Constance Zimmer of “Entourage”), Lori’s former writing partner, is single and trying to lure Lori back to the writers room; Jane (Andréa Bendewald) is a failed actress who has reinvented herself as a supermom to be feared; and Scarlett (Nicole Paggi), a Southern blonde in the process of converting to Judaism, is raising her son in the faith, not realizing that others do not perceive him as an MOT.
Kumble’s 2003 satire, “Turnaround,” about a Jewish hack who writes an offensive Holocaust film because he thinks it will sell, was so provocative that Kumble, in an interview before opening night, said he was “terrified his motivations would be misconstrued.”
“Turnaround” turned out to be a critical and box-office success. But that didn’t prevent the writer-director from apologizing for his latest work during an interview at the Lee Strasberg Theatre, where “Girls Talk” opens March 18.
In fact, Kumble — who has also written and directed films such as “Cruel Intentions” and “The Sweetest Thing” — revealed that he had just come from a meeting at his own daughter’s Jewish day school, at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he told everyone that the play’s school and principal in no way represents reality. Kumble’s wife, Mary, who is not Jewish but is raising their three young children as Jews, had a wonderful experience co-chairing the school’s fundraiser — but telling that story would have been boring, he explained.
Even so, Kumble, 44, got nervous when the head of Temple Israel’s day school enthused that she hoped to bring all her teachers to the show. “I tell people that everyone in the play is a composite, and that it is a satire,” he said. And if things go badly: “I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ But people over there know me, so they know my sense of humor.”
Kumble does like to provoke audiences, and he considers “Girls Talk” an “equal-opportunity offender.” The piece not only pokes fun at the moms-with-nannies set but also at real institutions, such as the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood, which is described as “catering to celebrities, homosexuals and really poor people.” Also skewered is the elite private club Soho House, where, Scarlett gushes, you can take a Polaroid of yourself and hang it on your wall so everyone who can’t get in can see you were there.
“I did my best to avoid cheap shots,” Kumble said of the piece. “[But] I like writing plays where adults act like sixth-graders at recess. I always see Hollywood sort of like high school — it’s the cool place where the cool people hang out, and others can’t get in.”
Zimmer, who plays the studio executive Dana Gordon on HBO’s Hollywood satire “Entourage,” said she admires Kumble’s plays “because they’re like events. They depict the good, the bad and the ugly about our industry — more so the ugly that doesn’t often get represented. ‘Entourage’ is even a little sugar-coated,” she added, as Shields agreed that the TV series is “a little ‘nice.’ ”
Kumble’s previous Hollywood plays were part of a hilariously mordant trilogy that revolved around a depraved fictional screenwriter, the author’s alter ego, who was portrayed in “Turnaround” by David Schwimmer. The character harkens back to the days when, Kumble said, he “was driven by envy and ambition. It was the ‘you have it, I want it’ mentality.”
Kumble wrote “Turnaround” after his own personal turnaround nine years ago, when he stopped drinking and compulsively focusing on his career.
“Girls Talk” began when Kumble felt pigeonholed in his film career around 2008, when he was “dying to get back to the theater,” he said. Because of his male-centric earlier work, he said, “I was being told by studio executives that I couldn’t write women, which kind of pissed me off.” So he vowed to write an all-female play.
“That was right around the time that my wife and I were going through applications to day schools for our oldest child, and I had a front-row seat to that stressful nightmare,” he said. “I could see it very much from my wife’s point of view.”
The characters ended up being Jews, he said, because his own humor is “very Jewish” — the “Who is a Jew?” subplot was inspired by the trip Kumble and his wife took to Israel for their 10th anniversary.
So why aren’t any of the five actresses in “Girls Talk” Jewish themselves? It’s not that Kumble wouldn’t have liked to cast Jews. However, certain realities prevailed; he needed actresses based in Los Angeles who were not auditioning for pilots, who could play comedy as well as pathos and who had theater credibility. And one could not ask for a better cast than Shields, et al.
Shields, who pronounced every Yiddish word impeccably during a recent read-through, praised Kumble for his humor and his sensitivity. “There are so few roles written for women that are complex and funny, heartbreaking and smart,” she said. “We’re very often relegated to being props or ‘the girlfriend’ or somebody who perpetuates the rest of the story or the male lead. ‘Girls Talk’ is a positive exploration of the complexities of what it means to be a mother, to have a career, and to somehow always feel like you’re falling short.”