Gunning for Laughs

What would you get if you mixed the sibling rivalry and bad food of white trash culture with physical comedy and a little Harold Pinter? Probably something like Media Darlings, local playwright Joey Berner's new production at the Zocalo Theater. Playing fast and loose with black comedy -- the black part borrowed from Pinter and the comedy from good sitcom writing -- Berner has come up with a funny and fairly tight play.

Wisely, Berner has used TV as his point of departure rather than his model. This sensibility is evident in Media Darlings' first scene, when the blue light of a TV monitor reveals one of the main characters, who's pointing a gun at his head. The actor's position is more meditative than despairing, but the implication of the monitor as a poisonous and omnipresent thing is well established. Young writers (in fact, most writers) love to go on about how corrupting the media can be, but with Media Darlings, Berner has eschewed serious considerations of a TV nation in favor of focusing on the comedy to be found in measuring one's criminal capabilities against a slick, processed sound bite.

Berner -- who has directed and acted in a number of projects at Actors Workshop, and not only wrote Media Darlings, but also produced, directed and stars in it -- set his play in the seedy Chicago apartment of brothers Gordon and Malcolm, who live together out of financial necessity rather than an ardent fondness for each other. Pleased by his promotion to bag boy supervisor at the local grocer's, Malcolm is best described as big and slow. Gordon's central personality trait is his violent grumpiness, which he uses to bully Malcolm and to entertain himself when reruns of The Jeffersons are over. Boredom and a general disgust with the world leads Gordon to decide that crime isn't only a worthwhile diversion, it's also a darn good way to make a living.

Framed by the chalk-scrawled slogans "We Kill" and "Share the Violence" on the minimal black box set, the play progresses through the brothers' various holdups, the TV and print news reports of their crimes and their ever refining sense of what makes for a newsworthy robbery. Malcolm (Paul Drake) and Gordon's (Berner) standards for success include efficiency (high death rate with low bullet expenditure), cash and a substantial supply of looted meat products.

If it all sounds a little sick, it is. Media Darlings has the raw appeal of a new play and the loose footing of a very young one. The title is the worst offender in terms of footing: it's far too cute to fit the dark side of the script, and off the mark in terms of characterizing the production. This isn't a play about the media's role in crime, it's a play about how ridiculous the motives for crime (in this case, a lust for meat products) can become and, in the tradition of black comedy, how a trip down the wrong path turns the light on in Malcolm's dim attic.

The show moves at warp speed, and both Berner and Drake are at their best the faster it goes. The interchange between the two actors is a big part of this production's charm: they top each other with an easy rhythm, pumping up the jokes until they have to pause for the audience's laughter. When Malcolm convinces Gordon that he needs to practice his stickup technique, Malcolm agrees, but attempts to add his own signature by looting the snack aisle before emptying the register. "When do I get to use the gun?" asks Malcolm despite his mistake, during a robbery rehearsal, of leaving the vegetable used as a stand-in for a gun sitting on a make-believe counter. "When you prove to me you can handle the carrot," growls his brother.

Media Darlings occasionally goes wrong with meandering dialogue and, at times, thanks to a few scenes in which Drake and Berner reduce their characters down to boys in the sandbox and throw juvenile insults such as "retard" back and forth, the audience gets the sinking feeling it's wandered into a skit-comedy TV show. Yes, these are characters who never emerge from their cavelike dwelling except to kill, rob or eat, but they're smarter than they at first let on, and it simply doesn't ring true for them to use silly insults when they're clearly capable of clever ones.

As is often the case with self-produced and directed theater, there are a few places where performances suffer for the lack of more outside perspectives. Drake makes the choice to play Malcolm as whiny and co-dependent in the first act, which doesn't serve the character's newfound confidence in the second act. With a stronger director, and a more experienced actor, Malcolm's craftiness could be alluded to early on, which would add an evil depth that would resonate with the play's surprise ending.

Still, Berner is dead-on as the angry Gordon, and it's clearly a part he relishes, letting loose a vile stream of insults that ridicule Malcolm, himself and the poor descriptive quality in the newspaper coverage of his dirty deeds. Though he often throws his lines away too quickly, Berner's best acting comes in setting up lines for Malcolm, whom he persuades into crime by promising, "We'll get hot dogs after."

The play's message, though it may be a stretch to call it such, is delivered by Malcolm, who turns out to have an off-the-cuff talent for armed robbery, believing even "murder can be friendly!" Like a pulp fiction prodigal son who starts out hopelessly astray only to finish with fame and recognition, Malcolm succeeds in a variety of surprising ways. He becomes a good criminal and a ruthless dealmaker, capable of sacrificing Gordon in order to satisfy his brother's main desire: to have the world -- or at least the city of Chicago -- hear about his skill as a criminal.

The production was designed using the premise that people like to sit on-stage and see the "magic" of the light board and musical cues, and as a result, all the technical elements in Media Darlings are naked to the audience. It works, with one of the most pleasing of the production elements being guitarist Rick Mantler, who's so happy while playing the show's '70s sitcom theme songs that the audience can't help but sing all that good stuff ("Good Times" and "Moving On Up" figuring in as favorites) right back at him.

Cleverness and the underdog theme aside, Media Darlings is never going to make the cut as high art. But it is a funny, well-crafted script. If brave new-play patrons can stand their feet sticking to the floor, Zocalo offers a refreshingly low-budget theater experience where -- bonus! -- audience members can drink $2 beers in their seats.

Media Darlings plays through June 2 at the Zocalo Theater, 5223 Feagan, 541-1242.

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Megan Halverson