By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
There was a time in American pop culture when the audience believed what they saw on TV, especially the "game shows" — The $64,000 Question, Dotto, Twenty-One — that flickered live during the mid-'50s and entertained millions with their battles of wits. Literally, truth was in black and white. What no one — except the producers, advertisers and contestants — knew at the time was that the shows were rigged. The sweaty adversaries in the soundproof booth had been given the answers and coached to act surprised, and even their wardrobes were chosen for maximum dramatic effect. The powers-that-be couldn't care less about the sleazy dishonesty they promoted. They wanted to sell the sponsors' products, and if they found a willing patsy to shill for them and get the public to watch the program and buy the Hazel Bishop lipstick or a bottle of Geritol, what was the harm? This was showbiz — only entertainment, after all.
As TV quiz-show producer extraordinaire Dan Enright (Chris Tennison) baldly states in Richard Greenberg's poetic epic on the Twenty-One scandal, Night and Her Stars, "In the first place, we have done nothing wrong. In the second place, we have done it in the utmost secrecy."
In Greenberg's richly evocative tale, on view at the new Town Center Theatre, Enright is the Mephistopheles who sells the souls of his hapless contestants with a slap on the back, using unctuous humility to betray their better natures. He seduces with oily panache. You'll be popular, he tells contestants, you'll have riches, you'll be a hero, a champion! Just do what we tell you; it's not so bad, everybody cheats. The patsies fall without realizing they've been pushed. The gnawing self-doubts that eat the poor bastards alive come later. By then, Enright's cleared his conscience and already forgotten them; they've been replaced by new champions.
The plan works brilliantly, except for schlub contestant Herb Stempel (Joey Milillo), a sad sack with an astonishing photographic memory. Proudly, he calls his gift "eidetic" instead of photographic, because he likes that no one knows what that word means. He doesn't need the answers, but he needs the money. He also wants the respect, he so wrongly thinks, that fame brings. Loquacious, maddening and annoying, Herb wants his lonely, depressed wife (Laura Kaldis) to love him — or at least listen to him — and being on TV in front of millions will give him his heart's desire.
However, even his engineered persona — he's put in a suit that doesn't fit and scrubbed of his idiosyncrasies — doesn't play with the audience. They hate him; he makes them nervous. Enright's flooded with complaints and low ratings. The sponsor demands a change. Into this web falls the perfect anti-Herb: Charles Van Doren (Aaron Stryk), an elite, erudite, photogenic Columbia University English professor, scion of an esteemed and prized literary family. He's a sexy egghead. Enright woos Van Doren with Svengali smoothness, using his vanity and love of learning to turn him toward the darkness. The public eats him up.
That, of course, eats up loser Herb, whose dreams have crashed and burned. In a vengeful rage, he exposes Enright's lies, but nobody believes him. How all these devilish reversals play out, I leave in Greenberg's most dramatic hands. His works (Eastern Standard, The Violet Hour, the Tony Award-winning Take Me Out) are highly literate, unusually theatrical and fit only for the stage — he always reminds us that we're sitting in a theater, watching. Dialogue overlaps, characters address the audience and Brechtian titles flash on the backdrop. Using what could be described as vernacular poetry, his characters speak with an insight and clarity denied to us. Nobody in life talks like a Greenberg character, but this highly stylized language works wonders, adding another layer to the distance while drawing us closer. It's quite remarkable on the ear.
Greenberg remains fairly accurate in his television history facts, but too many themes get sketchy treatment. One minor irritation is the unequal emotional treatment of Herb and Van Doren. Each man has enough inner turmoil to have his own play; overlapping their convoluted stories means someone's going to get shortchanged. Guess who? Greenberg gives Van Doren the gloss of upper-crust "advantage"; he's one of the "chosen" who has a crisis of "grace," when all he really wants, so it seems, is the love of a distant father. Herb is the more interesting character, a really strange nobody with a gift he can't control. But as Van Doren's story unfolds, Herb becomes peripheral and is unfairly shoved aside. At the end, Greenberg throws the "coda" to Van Doren. The golden boy gets the author's blessing. Herb gets nothing.
Under Ilich Guardiola's sparklingly fluid direction, the ensemble acting is peerless, as is the entire production. Everything meshes. Town Center Theatre also deserves accolades for bringing any Greenberg into our area. We hope that for Houston's new theater company — albeit, one far, far outside the Loop —this heavenly Night and Her Stars is but a harbinger of other great things to come. Welcome.