Don't adjust the horizontal and don't try to fix the vertical on this TV at Black Lab Theatre. It's programmed for satire of the biting kind. Anyway, you'll be too enthralled by this cautionary tale from Theresa Rebeck to move off the couch to change the channel.
Since its inception, television has been roasted and mocked for its insidious effect upon the human mind. It has been branded a wasteland, the boob tube, an ugly piece of furniture, the ultimate Madison Avenue wet dream, or "nothing but auditions," said with gleeful scorn by Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Playwright Rebeck knows the industry inside out, having written for such mega-hit series as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue and the current Smash. Her plays include Mauritius, Blind Dates and Seminar, currently playing on Broadway.
She knows what she's talking about, and her searing insights have the sad ring of truth. The entire industry gets shafted. In Rebeck's double-vision dissection, we see the top tier where programs are created and the news made, and then watch the effects of their decisions on the boobs -- roommates who share a house in St. Louis -- who watch the programs. The whole satire, which draws blood, is comically tragic.
At the top is the network's sleazy head honcho Wes (Chris Patton); his harried, toadying news department chief Stu (Xzavien Hollins); and superstar/superego reporter and news anchor Jennifer (Kelley Peters), who sleeps her way into the A-list. At the house live high-strung slacker Merv (Mike Yager), who's hooked like a junkie on reality TV shows; granola-munching Alice (Danica Dawn Johnston), who rails against Merv and his TV-induced coma/do-nothing attitude; young doctor-in-training Grigsby (Claire Anderson), who only wants a fair shake in life; and level-headed Vince (Jordan Jaffe), who doesn't want to make waves, and sides with Merv when Alice overreacts and tries to kick Merv out of the house. He's behind three months in the rent, never cleans the kitchen and always eats her food without paying her back. He's saving the back rent for a high-def TV.
These early scenes are like watching the best (or worst) of reality TV, and at first we don't know if what we're watching is the show Wes produces or not. It's one of the many reversals Rebeck throws at us. Merv ultimately snaps -- right before commercial break, I mean intermission -- and the TV generation comes full swing as the St. Louis standoff becomes fodder for the ultimate reality show.
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The ensemble cast is well-nigh perfect, and Yager is a standout. Wearing a Beavis and Butt-head T-shirt (thank you, costumer Macy Perrone), he's both psychotic and all-too real, sitting around the apartment in his underwear and swearing at the tube, when not confronting his roommates or dreaming of meeting his love/hate idol Jennifer. Passive/aggressive gets a whole new meaning in Yager's bone-chilling depiction. He's the roommate from hell, and we've all had one. As the exasperated Stu, Hollins sputters at Wes's immorality and lack of standards; he can't even finish his sentences he's so frustrated. Repeatedly fired and immediately rehired, he knows where the skeletons are buried but ultimately has no power. Patton gives Wes the unctuous sheen of someone who knows nothing but pontificates endlessly. Ratings and profits drive him. He's as mad as Merv. As perky anchor Jennifer, Peters exudes that Katie Couric false charm that hides a fist of iron. She's going to the top and nothing, repeat nothing, will stand in her way, except maybe wearing an angora sweater on live TV that sheds and makes her look like a "fucking tomato."
Under David Rainey's whiz-bang and perceptive direction, there's no static anywhere. The play moves to its inevitable conclusion and keeps us riveted throughout. You won't reach for the clicker. This is must-see TV.
Rebeck's ultimate reality show plays through March 31 at Frenetic Theater, 5012 Navigation Blvd. Purchase tickets online at blacklabtheatre.com or call 713-515-4028. $12-$25.