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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Initially there seems to be no connection between the characters at the network and in the St Louis house for which Derek McLane has created distinctly different sets: a sleek glass and metal environment for the people at the network and a decidedly unfunky living room with ghastly brown and white wallpaper for the St. Louis housemates. And as McLane has connected the two worlds by having each set slide into separate and simultaneous view as needed, so you can rest assured that Ms. Rebeck will weave together the apparently separate stories as neatly as the NYPD Blue and Law & Order TV dramas that have financed her career as a playwright for live theater (a hit-and-miss collection of plays that never fail to deliver sharp, witty dialogue).
This over-the-top comic take on today's ever more bottom-line oriented TV programming is a dramatized continuation of what one-time FCC chair Newton Minow complained about in his famous 1961 "Wasteland" speech, Paddy Chayevsky's 1971 film Network and other media sendups. Rebeck uses a well known behind-the-tube relationship between a network executive and a reporter/reality show hostess to jump start her focus on the reality show craze that has exacerbated TV's continued downward spiral. Being a writer savvy enough to thrive in the fiercely competitive world of television and also nurture her voice as a theater playwright, she has managed to make it all slickly entertaining. Her characters are so broadly drawn that we can laugh even though TV's dumbing down effect on the populace (from the big chiefs on down) is no laughing matter. Playwrights Horizon has supported her work with a nifty production, stylishly helmed by Michael Mayer.
The play opens with a seductive, personality defining office meeting between the two pivotal characters, studio head Wes (Christopher Evan Welch) and sexy morning news reporter Jennifer Ramirez Morena Baccarin). Welch, whose work I've enjoyed ever since I saw him in a Williamstown Theater production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ten years ago, is in top form as the superficial, ratings-obsessed and childishly temperamental studio head. He is determined to make sure that Jennifer will not jump ship and go along with his plans for having her serve as the means to making his mornng news program compete with the likes of CNN.
Baccarin imbues the sexy Jennifer with a vein of steely ambition that compensates for her not being the sharpest pencil to ever anchor a news program (She gets into a tithy when she thinks she's accidentally used a vulgarism in a report on the Iraqui "Shites"). Wes's eagerness to mix business and pleasure is an apt setup for the subsequent merging of news and entertainment. But though the business-plus- sex relationship further polishes Jennifer's star, even she can never be completely relaxed in the dictator-like network environment— a fact underscored by director Mayer's stripping the office of all chairs but the one behind Wes's desk, which turns Wes's urging Jennifer to relax and make herself comfortable into a rather broad visual joke.
The shift to the other house is accomplished with a scenic bang. Here too we have two key characters: Merv (Jeremy Strong) and Alice (Katie Kreisler). Their relationship is far less cozy than Wes and Jennifer's. Alice is outraged at the way Merv insists on keeping the TV on at all times, his failure to help maintain the house they share with Grigsby (Mandy Siegfried) a medical intern and Vince (Haynes Thigpen) who works in computers. Most upsetting of all is the way Merv has fallen behind in his rent.
Strong is as memorably obnoxious as he was earlier this year in A Man For All Seasons, but this time not in period costume but dressed as a slacker. His being unemployed and glued to the TV set with a fixation on Jennifer is the trigger to set off the inevitable convergence of the two groups of characters. Actually the outrageous Merv's dialogue encompasses some of Rebeck's more pertinent points. Katie Kreisler makes Alice's disgust with Merv amusingly double-edged. While she disdains his couch potato habits, she admits that much as she liked the bucolic, television-less existence at her last home in Vermont (. . ."it was like freedom, being a free person living in America.") she left because "it didn't feel real somehow."
As Merv and Wes paralell each other, so Vince, the voice of reason in the St. Louis segments, has a counterpart in Stu. As played by Stephen Kunken, Stu believably blends play-it-safe employee and outspoken pleader for sanity. He patiently tries to convince Wes that he doesn't have a leg to stand on in his wild scheme to undo the FCC ruling that requires a certain amount of news coverage in exchange of free airtime. (As Wes puts it in a speech to his board: "No one checked in with me, when they invented America. And so do I object to this so-called 'law of the land?. I do"). While Stu is outspoken in his dismay about his boss's increasing manipulation of the network's programming, he's unable or unwilling to identify those who share his feeling, which is, of course, why the Wes-men are yes-men enabled power wielders.
The shifts between the two environments are interspersed with snippets of Jennifer's broadcasts, each one in a new and more show-biz-y outfit (a round of applause to costumer Susan Hilferty). When the Network and St. Louis stories finally and inevitably do collide, its explosive and in an even more super-heightened mode of exaggeration than everything that has gone before.
Ultimately, Our House, like the medium it satirizes ends up offering up chuckles rather than any stunning new insights. Nor does Ms. Rebeck provide a finale that reigns in the megalomaniacal Wes the way the cops in her crime shows handcuff thieves and murderers. She does leave you rooting for the survival of Public Television's News Hour and hope her nutty TV network chief and his paramour will tweet rather than broadcast their twaddle.
Reviews Of Other Work by Theresa Rebeck
Bad Dates--solo play
Omnium Gatherum with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
The Butterfly Collection
View of the Dome
Three Girls and Their Brother (Rebeck's debut novel)