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A Place At the Table
Plays about TV -- who cares?! TV is a lost cause! An easy target! Well. . .whether some people like it or not, it is the dominant cultural force in the wstern hemisphere. Millions upon millions upon millions watch it. Don't they deserve something half decent to watch? Isn't television the ultimate medium of the people? The alternative to taking it to task once in a while is to sit back, switch on, open our eyes as wide as a baby's, and let the drivel flood in. True we can always switch off. But unless we occasionally ask for better reason to switch on, don't we deserve what we get?
-- Simon Block
Remember the maddened Peter Finch in the film Network shouting that he was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it any more? Well, Simon Block is also mad as hell about what TV could be, should be, and most of the time is not. He's mad about how it seduces millions into couch potatohood, and grinds the talent of worker ants (producers, editors, writers, etc.) into mediocrity. The result is a funny and incisive dramatic bitch -- a wakeup call for demanding a better reason to switch on the TV than as a relaxing anaesthetic. Anglophiles should take note that this is a British import which proves that as the West End theater is as much about film stars, provocative glimpses of bare rears and mega musicals as Broadway, so British TV isn't all Masterpiece Theater.
Block fires his verbal volleys at four people who want a place at the table where a program ideas are tossed out or deemed to have the "legs" to attract audiences (or to be more precise, advertisers). The central character Adam (Zak Orth), a talented, wheelchair bound playwright. He arrives at the offices of television production company (a sleek Mondrian like set by James Noone) where A Place At the Table takes place, the perennial innocent among the sharks. He's there because Jack In the Box, his well-reviewed Fringe play about a crippled man, has caught the interest of script editor Sarah (Robin Weigert), who not so long ago emigrated from the theater to the better paying TV industry.
Sarah sees Adam's play as a chance to insure her place at the table with something that will actually be meaningful. What she has in mind is to use Jack In the Box as a jumping off point for a sitcom which will, unlike anything else now on TV, feature a disabled person Adam who is already resentful at being labeled as a disabled writer, is appalled at Sarah's proposal. Their back-and-forth arguments take up much of the first act, and in a somewhat different vein also dominate the second act which moves the action five months forward.
If this sounds talky, it is -- or would be were it not for the presto tempo of director Michael Sexton, the topnotch performances of Zak Orth and Robin Weigert (both with convincing and consistent British accents) and Block's consistently peppery dialogue.
When Sarah insists that this is an opportunity "to make, not TV history but history history" Adam retorts: "Your milestone will become my millstone and you ask me to be compliant in the humiliation of my own disability." By the time Sarah desperately pleads "help me, please, before I become irretrievably pointless" we know both these people as much through their unspoken actions as from their actual words. As psychotherapeutic jargon would have it, we know where each is coming from. While plot isn't this play's strong suit, if at the end of the first act you think you know just where all this is headed, Act two does have a surprise in store.
The two supporting players on this dartboard for Mr. Block's rant are Rachel (Jen Drohan), an art history student interning at the company and a Sammy (Jesse Penington), a ruthlessly ambitious runner. Pennington's Cockney accented personality will remind those old enough to remember of his American literary forbear Sammy Glick of Bud Shulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? Drohan is the consummate sweet young thing who's obviously a quick and adaptable learner (and acceptor) of the rules of the TV success game. While they need neither wheelchair or crutches, Mr. Block's vision is of an industry whose advertising-ratings driven decisions have a crippling effect of all who labor within its ranks. Occasionally, a tiny window of opportunity opens for those with genuine talent (like Adam) to slip through and deliver something worthwhile.
Since a play written as a wakeup call is far different from a results-oriented exposé, A Place at the Table is unlikely to make much of a ripple in the TV industry's esthetic on either side of the ocean. If there's any action-taking message it's Carpe Diem! I'll leave it to you to find out whether Adam seizes his day.