New plays seldom merit the lofty notation world premiere , given that term's hyperbole. But the debut of "Changing Channels," an Open City production at the 2nd Stage Theatre, deserves to be remembered. The play, a bleak, scabrous comedy about the effects of television on the American family, should be around for quite a while.
It's a play for its time (actually overdue), vividly acted by a cast of seven and written and directed with savage verve by Justin Tanner. The resonances are pre-Sam Shepard and post-"Long Day's Journey Into Night." The family unit here is chilling, angry, unintentionally riotous and very real.
"Changing Channels" isn't satire and it's not about the tube. It's about a lower-middle-class family--a waitress-mother and her three grown children--who never turn off the TV set except to sleep. They alternate slumping in front of the big box, living and squabbling through the drone of TV and the clicking of channels.
What's novel about Tanner's play is that these people are not zombies but reflections of lives overdosed on pop culture. Their actions and passions--even their outbursts--sometimes seem to be happening under water.
Life becomes more real when, in a nice symbolic touch, the jumbo TV set is broken and a tiny replacement portable is also lost to the family. It's a shock that stuns the family back to life. It also counterpoints the surprisingly strong, dramatic conclusion between the basically sweet, harried mother and her surly, domestic lizard of a son (fine, calibrated performances by real-life mother and son Pat Atkins and Gavin J. Atkins).
The play is not perfect. You don't know enough about the nasty motives propelling Gavin Atkins' destructive character; the few hints are not satisfying. But the actor is arresting and he reminds you a little bit of a young Clark Gable.
Another standout is Andy Daley as the hulking, callow, permanently foul older brother. It's unbelievable, though, that his delicious girlfriend (svelte Erika Ingersoll, out of her element in this jungle) would be wearing his ring even if this is a trailer park in Salinas.
When Daley sinks into his armchair in front of the TV and sneers to his mother, who is chortling over "The Wheel of Fortune," to "turn on the (football) game!" you know it's the end of Western civilization.
Daley also did the set, an admirable pile of ersatz clutter. Real canned food is hurled against a wall and pieces of food fall everywhere, into the crevices of couches and under tables. That image is an excessive, visceral turnoff.
But life keeps brimming in this unlikely stew. There's a weight-conscious teen-age sister, played with a whoop by Laurel Green, who, to her family's horror, writes and performs 30-second numbers inspired by product commercials on television. Her major creative work is a self-styled dancing blurb about tampons, complete with a white paper-rolled sample that's as tall as she is. Green is terrific.
Lori Hosepian is another wryly etched portrait, a naive hick of a young waitress whose visits lurch her into the eye of the storm. David S. Franklin, as a family friend from Los Angeles, has the toughest role because it is so sanely earnest and because this character (albeit a physical coward) can see the desensitizing effects of the TV bath around him. His character is only partially successful because it's the least shaped. The show has the potential to be a hit on the order of the long-running "Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will?)." But "Changing Channels" is darker--a family on a different ledge.
Performances at 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. run Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through Dec. 20. Tickets: $10-$12; (213) 462-6317.