When Friends tapes each week on Friday night, David Schwimmer plays for an audience of tens of millions. Tonight, though, at the premiere of his play Turnaround, it's an audience of...tens.
And what tens. ''Do we have seats for Lisa and Courteney?'' someone calls out. Of course we do, even though there are none to be seen inside West Hollywood's 99-seat Coast Playhouse on this opening night in late January. Already in place are Matthew Perry, Paul Rudd, and Selma Blair. Lisa Kudrow is busy guarding the door to the men's room while Courteney Cox Arquette uses the loo less taken. (Even off screen, Friends practice the buddy system.) It's true: More than 5 percent of the audience tonight comprises Friends regulars or recent celebrity guests. And then there are non-Central Perk habitues like Renee Zellweger, whose late arrival gets her a place in a folding chair so close to the stage that her celebrated gams practically become part of the set.
''Thanks for coming to see our little Equity-waiver play,'' Schwimmer chuckles later. ''We're just doing it for the fun of it, and it's kind of a laugh that it's become the hottest ticket in town.'' It's the agents and producers pilloried in this dark Hollywood comedy who are most desperate to see him play so far against type; his unrepentantly venal director is pitted against obsequious producer Jonathan Silverman (The Single Guy) for the soul of drug-addicted screen-writer Tom Everett Scott (ER). ''It takes [audiences] about three minutes to adjust, and then it's not Ross on stage,'' says writer-director Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions). ''But he has to work for that, because he's on TV 10 times a day.''
Turnaround's showbiz satire might sound too incestuous for comfort, but critics have heaped surprisingly hefty praise on the play and its paparazzi-friendly players. (The good reviews ensure the show will run even after Schwimmer exits March 2; the star is committed to adapting and directing a stage version of Studs Terkel's 1992 book on race for his own Chicago theater company.) The three principal performances are accomplished enough that this Hurlyburly-by-way-of-SNL melange nearly manages to have it all, firing a barrage of hysterical zingers -- with shout-outs to the Gersh Agency, the Blockbuster Awards, kabbalah class, Brett Ratner, and high-tech PDAs -- that come off as character-driven. When Silverman insists he's not a gossip, Schwimmer retorts, ''You're the f -- -ing Aunt Bee of BlackBerries.'' There's even room for topical additions: Schwimmer tells a cocaine-fueled Scott, ''You're gacked out of your head, like [a certain A-list star] at the Golden Globes.''
Granted, the punchlines may be too hip for some rooms -- though not this one. ''We deal with universal themes,'' insists Kumble. ''I didn't know anything about the real estate business when I saw Glengarry Glen Ross, and I still connected with it. I did throw in inside jokes for the industry, just because it's fun, but I plan to pull them out if we go to New York or London.'' (No transfer's in the works as yet.) But for now, the laughter can stay on the insider track. Even if a few theater-goers find the characterizations a little too familiar. ''The guy I borrowed from the most was here tonight,'' says Silverman, glancing nervously around the premiere party. ''And he's not too happy to see me.''