Overheard at the Masquers performance at Pikes Peak Community College Friday night: Does anyone else find this embarrassing? Something funny here? This sucks. Oh, my God, this is painful!
Fortunately, those words were not spoken by audience members, expressing bewilderment or dissatisfaction with the premiere production of 24 Hours and Something Original. Unfortunately, these are lines from the play, the kind of underscoring statements and rhetorical questions you don't want to ask during a production as troubling as this one.
From the audience's perspective, the first mistake is in the billing of this play. The publicity calls it "a parody on television and its writers" and the program bills it as "a dramedy." If that isn't enough to get your funny bone flexing, the program cover even employs an unusually placed quotation from a critic, citing local playwright Ben Farrell as "a growing comedic talent." The problem is that the play is not funny. Not by a longshot.
The play treads familiar territory, the backstage world of television writers, presumably comedy writers. We take the fact that they refer to themselves as "joke men" and that they laugh awfully hard at their own lines as evidence enough that they are comedy writers. Farrell's lines on their own don't make the case, and the cast was uncertain enough in their performances that there was precious little comedy added once the page yielded to the stage.
There is no shortage of good material about comedy writers. The Dick Van Dyke Show looms large in the public consciousness thanks to perpetual reruns featuring the show's writing room shenanigans, and Neil Simon's recent Laughter on the 23rd Floor is the kind of hilarious comedy with a sprinkling of serious overtones that this play aspires to.
In his director's notes, Farrell describes the play by saying "I see Network meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I see Glengarry Glen Ross meets The Big Picture. I see Mr. Saturday Night meets Man on the Moon. I see E.T. meets Arthur. I've seen ... too many movies." There's nothing like setting yourself up for comparison to the loftiest of standards, but for the most part this play is nothing like these prototypes. The one comparison that does ring true is to Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, but these days every playwright with a behind-the-scenes look at the occupational excess of four-letter language claims Mamet as precedence, even when their attempts fail to use the device to any useful end such as developing character, plot, or -- heaven forbid -- humor.
The play falls into the trap of focusing on a painful experience -- a group of writers locked into a room for 24 hours and forced to come up with a new television pilot or lose their network jobs. It's difficult to make what characters see as a painful and unpleasant experience into something humorous and enjoyable for audiences. The danger is in making the audience feel the characters' pain too profoundly, suffering the torturous imprisonment every step of the way. To make matters worse, the characters in fact are not trapped in the writing room. They leave for cigarettes and coffee, for stress relief and to make any number of uses out of the onstage bathroom. The audience, meanwhile, is given no exit lines.
The strengths of the script all come later in the play, revealing further dimensions of characters we have already learned to resent. Farrell waits too long to give his audience any kind of hook, giving us an opportunity to care about characters, to root for anybody in their pursuit of resolving a conflict. Dialogue that finds characters calling each other "retards" and elevating put-down lines to the level of "look that up in your faggot college dictionary" is not destined to win over audiences in the early scenes.
Surely, there's an audience out there ready to gag and hack in laughter at this kind of material. Chances are, Farrell will find them. I'd look on the couch beside the bowl o' chips, dazed and dazzled by channel 86. For the rest of us, this kind of theater is simply insulting.