EmptyOpen Fist Theatre, Los Angeles
Through Aug. 25
"The Idiot Box," making its West Coast premiere, is a glittering absurdist farce. It's like "Pleasantville" the movie meets "Friends" the sitcom (you can substitute any sitcom featuring six friends living together in an eight-room Manhattan penthouse), with a sinister undertow that takes hold early and never lets go.
The similarities to "Pleasantville" seem more contemporaneous than borrowed and don't make the premise any the less clever or effective. The differences allow the play to make a compelling statement, though I'm not sure what it is: perhaps an evaluative contrast between television shows and real reality or the irredeemably existential nature of life or the importance of knowing who we are.
In fact, "Idiot Box" is at heart a lot more like the sitcom: a talented, versatile cast working from a smoothly professional script and getting its feedback from a richly varied audience response track (taped at first, the audience after). If writer Michael Elyanow had chosen to keep up the pretense for the entire evening, without introducing any of the play's reality-based untidiness, he might have established a long-running cult following.
One of the strengths of the production, Jeremy B. Cohen's direction, is evidenced by the fact that Kevin Carroll -- who took over at very short notice the role of Omar and carries a script -- gives a performance that is in many way as nuanced and effective as any of his colleagues. Carroll shows the guts and gumption of a trouper at one point by stuffing the script into a hip pocket.
Like a sitcom, each of the roles has a specific burden to carry. Corena Chase (as Australian dog-whisperer Veronica) has to be overwhelmingly glamorous and have an accent, and succeeds mostly in the former. Tisha Terrasini-Banker has to transform from a ditzy brunette to an intellectual activist and back, which she does with marvelous skill and relish. Kelly Van Kirk has to transform from a blandly benevolent friend to just blandly malevolent and does so with more command and presence than subtlety. Dominic Spillane catches the complexity and confusion in his sexual awakening and gender-identification skirmishes with startling energy and humanity.
Anna Khaja, who, as the central feminine force, has to become someone willing to pay the ultimate price for escape. She does so with eloquent anguish and astonishing physical passion, even if she is left standing around too much. David Castellani as a voice of insanity comes even further unhinged with a wonderful wry spirit, and Amanda Weier tries earnestly to differentiate between her two personalities. As peripheral eccentrics who are actually comfortable within their own skins, Conor Lane as a gender-casual hunk and Rod Switzer as an unabashed chubby chaser complete the excellent cast.
Throughout, the ensemble always seems spontaneous, and the audience catches the fun as if it were contagious, even though the quotient of funny lines decreases once the laugh track stops functioning.
The Open Fist Theatre's stage is used very well, with just the right number of closets and doors, though the clutter of furniture sometimes gets in the way of the actors opening up their riffs and monologues.
THE IDIOT BOX
Presented bythe Open Fist Theatre Company
Playwright: Michael Elyanow
Director: Jeremy B. Cohen
Producers: Amanda Weier, Martha Demson
Set designer: Donna Marquet
Costume designer: Alex Jaeger
Lighting designer: J. Kent Inasy
Original music/Sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Chloe: Anna Khaja
Fiona: Tisha Terrasini-Banker
Stephanie: Amanda Weier
Veronica: Corena Chase
Mark: Kelly Van Kirk
Omar: Kevin Carroll
Connor: David Castellani
Billy: Dominic Spillane
Raymond: Conor Lane
Harvey: Rod Switzer