In the Buttafuoco era, Alan Ayckbourn's "Man of the Moment" is very much a play of the moment. The West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory rips into the world of tabloid television with a vengeance.
But Ayckbourn doesn't simply point the finger. He acknowledges the human need to be entertained by other people's conflicts. Indeed, in this very play, Ayckbourn himself entertains us mightily with a conflict between a good man and the forces that try to undermine him.
This is only Ayckbourn's final irony among many. He also points out that not only can bad things happen to good people, but that bad things can sometimes benefit people, good or bad, in the most unexpected ways.
David Emmes has staged this caustic comedy for all it's worth. This production ought to attract all of the people who produce tabloid television, all of the people who watch it, and just about anyone who has any curiosity about the ethical knots of our media-mad society. And for those Americans who are sometimes ashamed of what they see on their own TV, here is reassuring evidence that British TV isn't necessarily more uplifting.
Seventeen years ago, Douglas Beechey helped foil a bank robbery led by Vic Parks. The event made both men famous. But while Vic used his nine years in prison to write his biography and then became a wealthy and lionized TV celebrity after his release, Douglas' fame forced him to change his job and then fade into an apparently dreary obscurity.
TV "reporter/presenter" Jill Rillington has the bright idea of reuniting the pair at Parks' Mediterranean villa, with cameras rolling. She'll add some staged studio re-enactments of the crime, using actors and the whole package will be broadcast on the series "Their Paths Crossed." Imagine the ratings--and imagine Jill with her very own series as a result.
At first, as we join Jill (Anni Long) on the sun-washed patio of Vic's villa, her main problem seems to be Douglas (Richard Doyle). It's not that he's temperamental. On the contrary, he's much too nice. In order to pump up her show, Jill wants Douglas to express some bitterness, some envy over the two men's differing fates. Instead, to borrow a current L.A. example, Douglas is acting like Reginald Denny. That'll never do.
Even worse, Douglas isn't remotely telegenic. As played by the versatile Richard Doyle (costumed by Dwight Richard Odle), Douglas looks like a great gray nerd. When the cameras are on, his posture freezes in its most awkward pose--until someone tries to tell him how to improve it, at which point he discovers an even stiffer position.
Doyle's inspired clowning, coupled with a piece of unexpected slapstick involving actor Steve DeNaut, makes the last scene of the first act shamelessly funny. The laughter at this point becomes so intense that it appears as if Ayckbourn's more serious points might be submerged in the onstage swimming pool at the back of Cliff Faulkner's set or lost in the glow of Tom Ruzika's Mediterranean lighting.
But that first act also includes a prime example of Ayckbourn's canny way of deepening his play beyond the easy laughs. The smoothly despicable Vic (Jarion Monroe) begins to object to any mention on "Their Paths Crossed" of the original moment when his and Beechey's paths first crossed. This scene is a cakewalk for actor Monroe, who specializes in slimy sharks like Vic (South Coast veterans will never forget his Dr. Waxling from "Search and Destroy").
Suddenly, Jill--who hitherto has seemed simply rude and ratings-greedy--makes the sensible argument that you can't cover the aftermath of a bank robbery without mentioning the bloody incident itself. While she admittedly has a vested interest in this argument, it's smart of Ayckbourn to gently slide the audience into her shoes, at least for a scene. Long makes Jill the good-looking, hard-driving, woman of the moment, exactly as Ayckbourn prescribes.
We finally learn the source of Douglas' perplexing good cheer, in a heart-to-heart he shares with Vic's wife (Julie Fulton, touchingly troubled). But Ayckbourn doesn't stop there. He goes out on a limb with some surprising second act shenanigans. Without going into details--other than to applaud the willingness of Lea Charisse Woods, playing an overweight servant, to go the limit on behalf of Ayckbourn's unrelenting eye--let's just say these events might look contrived on paper.
But at South Coast they look like the sort of darkly wacky antics that might be in Joe Orton's "Loot," which just closed next door. More important, they put Douglas in the hot seat once again, and in his final gesture, he seriously begins to succumb to the distortions of reality that "reality television" represents. It's the most provocative moment of a very provocative play.
\o7 * "Man of the Moment," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 21. $25-$35. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes. \f7 'Man of the Moment'
Anni Long Jill Rillington
Julie Fulton Trudy
John Ellington Kenny Collins
Steve DeNaut Ruy
Richard Doyle Douglas Beechey
Jarion Monroe Vic Parks
Stefanie Wilson or Alison Young Cindy
Lea Charisse Woods Sharon Giffin
Irene Roseen Marta
Don Took Ashley Barnes
Alan Ayckbourn's comedy. Directed by David Emmes. Sets Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting Tom Ruzika. Sound Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora. Stager manager Julie Haber.