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THEATER REVIEW : 'Night' Delivers Unfocused Message on TV's Influence

March 07, 1994|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just as we stare in horror at the chain-smoking habits of Hollywood's 1940s movie stars, future generations may look back at our television-obsessed behavior and gasp, "Didn't they realize it was killing them? Couldn't Americans at the end of the 20th Century see that TV is physically addictive?"

Until medical science pronounces television a disease-carrying addiction, crusaders must remain dependent on cautionary morality plays like "Night and Her Stars" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Richard Greenberg's ambitious world premiere examines our obsession with television and celebrities, using the 1950s network quiz show scandals as a platform.

Although it's an impressively staged epic with marvelous speeches and stellar performances, "Night and Her Stars" resembles that era's television reception--the story flickers in-and-out of focus. At three acts and nearly three hours, there is ample time for the playwright to discover that focus. But Greenberg, author of the Broadway comedy hit "Eastern Standard," never commits to a core image or character. Instead, he employs a static literary style to deliver a message about a visual medium. Even the classic quiz show image of a contestant sweating in a glass booth is reduced to abruptly glimpsed rear-stage silhouettes. While some 27 characters spin from 1956 to 1959, we feel like the playwright is channel surfing.

This is baffling because we're initially hooked by Greenberg's finest character. Co-producer of NBC's quiz show "Twenty-One," Daniel Enright should be the play's Machiavellian puppet master. Glib, eloquent, cynical, Enright has mastered "these boxes of light" and knows he's present at the creation of the sound byte. As portrayed with hypnotic cunning by Peter Frechette, Enright resembles Nosferatu in search of victims, an Elmer Gantry preaching immoral imperative.

In response to a sponsor's complaint about dull contestants, Enright introduces theatrical values to live television. He "casts" a nerdy Herb Stempel (an appropriately anti-heroic Patrick Breen), costuming the part-time college student in ill-fitting suits while rehearsing answers. When Stempel sweats profusely, Enright orders the heat turned up in the contestant's booth. But the ethnic Stempel fails to capture the imagination of the masses.

"We need a hero," Enright realizes. A charismatic All-American winner is drafted to compete against the sweating ethnic loser. Columbia professor Charles Van Doren (an ambiguous Dylan Baker), son of a famous author, offers the perfect contrast. In one of Greenberg's exquisitely rendered debates, Van Doren allows Enright to intellectually plant seeds of moral corruption into his psyche.

Meanwhile, Stempel believes that anti-Semitism contributed to his fall from the heights of television. Soon Stempel is confessing to the press that the quiz shows were rigged.

*

Dylan Baker maintains a pose of bemusement as the compromised educator-turned-entertainer. Although this interpretation is valid, his character fails to ignite. Nor can we attach much sympathy to the self-pitying Stempel. Even a dynamic performance by Robert Curtis-Brown as a congressional investigator can't provoke dramatic momentum.

The character who does attract our focus is Enright, potentially a ring-master resembling the Joel Gray maestro from "Cabaret" or the Edward James Olmos spirit of El Pachuco from "Zoot Suit." But Enright's role dwindles until reduced to a bit player on the fringes as more conventional characters struggle with the new medium of television.

Director David Warren rarely overcomes the script's indecisive, episodic nature. His stage tableaux can be stunning, especially when fans recite their bizarre letters like a chorus from a modern tragedy. But Warren's detached, Brechtian style undermines scenes crying out for emotional catharsis. When Warren does unleash his actors in a contrived, sentimental final scene between Van Doren and his father, the outburst is embarrassing.

"Night and Her Stars" still manages to reward our attention, primarily because of the sincere and convincing staging of a significant contemporary issue. What Enright calls "the fascination of the abomination" mesmerizes us. Like victims of the quiz show hoaxes, we're still reeling from the power of an unknown new God called television. Designers Cliff Faulkner and Wendall K. Harrington contribute witty slide projections of 1950s pop images on scrims to help hold our focus. But we aren't beguiled by projected titles announcing "the tension mounts."

* "Night and Her Stars," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends April 3. $25-$35. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. Peter Frechette: Daniel Enright Don Took: "Twenty-One" Sponsor (Ben), Mark Van Doren John-David Keller: NBC Rep, Midwestern Dad Ron Boussom: Jack Barry John Ellington: Albert Freedman Patrick Breen: Herb Stempel Mariangela Pino: Toby Stempel Dylan Baker: Charles Van Doren David Kaufman: Stewie, Angelo Petrarca, Jim Colette Kilroy: Arlene Terry, Geraldine Bernstein

A play by Richard Greenberg. Directed by David Warren. Sets and projections by Cliff Faulkner and Wendall K. Harrington. Costumes by Walker Hicklin. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Music and sound by Michael Roth.

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