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A few twists, not enough good turns

The celebrity-mad press gets skewered in an ineffectual production of 'Dumb Show.'

October 03, 2005|Steven Oxman | Special to The Times

He has "the 'it' factor," the attractive young woman says admiringly of Barry, the comic star of a successful television series who has been opening up his more private self to her. "I quite like him, really," she says, seeming to mean it. "He makes me laugh."

And now, she will destroy him.

It's her job.

The hypocrisy and heartlessness of the press get dissected in English playwright Joe Penhall's "Dumb Show," in which a likable, gullible and not-so-innocent entertainer is scammed by a couple of reporters out to expose the dark side of this popular celebrity.

Unfortunately, the celebrity's "it" factor -- defined aptly for us as an elusive combination of charisma, warmth and inclusiveness -- is nowhere to be found in this ineffectual production at South Coast Repertory, where the play is receiving its American premiere.

Even if provided a crackling, spry production, which director David Emmes does not manage to do, "Dumb Show" would have its clear limitations. Although it takes on a hot topic, Penhall's examination of the relationship between the media and the celebrities they pursue is not especially imaginative, insightful or provocative.

It should, however, be fun, filled with twisty contrivances and antic characters.

The first twist comes early on. Those private bankers, calling themselves John and Jane and kissing up to Barry with promises of personal attention to his money matters, are really Greg (John Rafter Lee) and Liz (Heidi Dippold), a couple of shameless tabloid journalists in pursuit of big game. They trap Barry (Micheal McShane) by getting him to offer drugs to the seductively "innocent" Liz.

As they try to get Barry to reveal all, promising to craft the inevitable story at least a bit to his advantage if he cooperates, the actor manages to turn the tables right back in a play that is really a series of power struggles.

In this production, though, the power struggles come off limp and muddy, and the actors just don't seem to be having much fun with some juicy roles.

Penhall, whose play "Blue/Orange" won lots of accolades and awards, crafts in Barry a central character who seems like an actor's fantasy: funny, charming and flawed. But here, Barry just comes off as hapless and dull and -- most dangerous of all -- dumb.

Sure, Barry's clearly not the brightest bulb: He's easily manipulated, and he falls for the reporters' more absurd appeals long after he should have recognized their tactics. But he's not stupid either. He's just someone with a taste for brandy and some pretty typical emotional vulnerabilities.

But by making Barry dim, McShane and Emmes have turned him into too much of a victim, and invested this sharp, cynical play with a strange, out-of-place sappiness.

Lee's performance isn't quite adequate either. Greg is the least likable of the three characters -- he's misogynistic and self-involved. But he's the one who has to show us the thrill of the game. "This is such a buzz," he squeals, as they've hooked their victim and are reeling him in. "I feel glorious." But Lee just doesn't seem to feel glorious at all; like McShane's Barry, the character comes off first and foremost as dour and depressed.

Dippold fares better, and the few moments that work unfailingly belong to her, particularly an ending that hits its mark better than any other part of the play. Liz is a genuine performer, throwing herself into her role and then showing us with a degree of glee how she meant none of it. Penhall's most evocative observation about the "fame game" is that reporters have become entertainers, playing parts and crafting sentimental dramas with which to entertain us. It's all a big, dumb show, terrible for society but highly addictive.

Dippold's Liz is an able hunter, identifying her prey's weakness and exploiting it with a bit of genuine relish. The problem is that it's not much fun to watch the hunt when the prey is such easy pickings.


`Dumb Show'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 16

Price: $28 to $58

Contact: (714) 708-5555

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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