BWW Review: GOOD TELEVISION Channels Great Theater at Zeitgeist Stage Company
CAST (in order of appearance): Benjamin Lewin, Jenny Reagan, Tasia Jones, Christine Power, Shelley Brown, Olev Aleksander, William Bowry, Bill Salem
Performances through May 17 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at The Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Black Box Theater, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.zeitgeiststage.com
This has been quite the year for Zeitgeist Stage Company as their acclaimed productions of Punk Rock and The Normal Heart have been nominated for numerous Elliot Norton Awards, while earlier this month, The Normal Heart took home four 2014 IRNE Awards, a record for the company. Now, Artistic Director David J. Miller is hoping to complete the trifecta with Good Television, first-time playwright Rod McLachlan's powerful dissection of a reality TV show based on A&E's Intervention. Under Miller's sure-handed direction, the ensemble (three Zeitgeist veterans and five actors making their debuts on this stage) works together seamlessly, drawing us into their seedy world.
Whether we want to or not, McLachlan makes sure the audience sees how the sausage is made behind the scenes of the fictional show Rehabilitation. From production meetings to telephone interviews with the prospective "starring" family members, the script tracks the process used to choose an addict worthy of selection for treatment and an episode that will be good television. As the field producer, recovering alcoholic Connie (Christine Power) sees herself as the guardian at the gate, choosing from among the hundreds of applicants for the program to find addicts with a good chance of success. When show runner Bernice (Shelley Brown) announces that the network has increased their schedule from thirteen to twenty-two installments, the pressure is on to find subjects in a hurry and the vetting becomes less stringent. With no additional money or staff allocated, Bernice elevates Tara (Tasia Jones), a low-level nepotism hire, to associate producer to help Connie pick up the load.
Circumstances conspire against Connie's disinclination to accept meth addict Clemmy (Benjamin Lewin) and his dysfunctional family from Aiken, South Carolina, when Bernice accepts a new job with Fox TV and the new show runner Ethan (William Bowry) flexes his authority. Although Clemmy's older sister Brittany (Jenny Reagan) is desperate for the show's help and committed to doing everything they require, the red flags include the longevity of his habit (five years) and the fact that even if he successfully completes rehab, he will not be returning to a better life. What Clemmy has going for him is his appeal to the television audience as, in Bernice's words, an "adorable rural male subject," and Lewin charismatically projects those traits. Despite her misgivings, Connie dives into the project and shows professionalism in her phone interviews with Brit and older brother Mackson (Olev Aleksander), ensuring that they understand the parameters. In their zeal to get Clemmy the treatment they could never afford and relief for the relentless burden he has been to the family, they agree without fully comprehending what they're getting themselves into.
McLachlan makes it clear in Good Television that, while treatment is important, the bottom line is that television is in charge of the product. The so-called reality and the drama it creates to hook the viewers is the be-all and end-all. The producers don't care about getting to know the subjects, but the playwright puts the focus squarely on his complex characters and delving into their motivations. Across the board, Miller's cast gets into the nooks and crannies to give fully realized performances, but Lewin, Reagan, and Power in particular stand out.
A sophomore at Brandeis University, Lewin's fidgety, explosive portrayal marks his debut at Zeitgeist. Presumably, his own experiences are light years removed from those of Clemmy, but he finds the hopelessness, anxiety, anger, and manipulative tendencies that mask the damaged boy inside. His sibling relationship with Reagan feels natural, as she inhabits the enabling, caretaker role. Her exhaustion and desperation wash over us like a tidal wave, leaving us unprepared for a major shift late in the play. Reagan and Power share an authenticity in their connection that exposes Connie's softer side and gives it credibility. Each of the characters undergoes change in the play, but Power's journey is the steepest climb and (to continue the metaphor) she is agile as a mountain goat.
Brown does a good job showing Bernice's struggle with the duality of her position; on the one hand, trying to change people's lives through television and send a message of hope, while on the other hand, chasing the good episode that will boost ratings. She is running out the string with this final program before leaving the network and her need to escape is palpable. Conversely, Bowry's Ethan is enthusiastic and energetic, chomping at the bit to shoot and show footage of everything that happens in the MacAddy family's trailer, no matter how devastating. Fresh out of journalism school, Tara is idealistic and naïve when she gets thrown into the deep end, but Jones shows her growth and development as she works alongside Connie.
The other men in the MacAddy family manage to throw monkey wrenches into the works. Mackson has been minimally involved with his brother and sister, but he is an underling at a local television station and thinks he knows how to play the game. Aleksander gets into his persona, passing himself off as agreeable before trying to take control of the situation. When things deteriorate, and accusations and revelations fly fast and furious, his reactions are worth watching. The long lost father comes late to the party and Bill Salem nails the remorseful personality of the ne'er-do-well who has found Jesus.
Whether you love it or hate it, reality tv is simply the concept behind Good Television. The play is all about getting inside the characters, looking at the problem of addiction, and the role of intervention. As much as the audience is vital to any live theatrical production, in this instance, we become the television audience watching this process play out. We get sucked into the action like voyeuristic junkies and then we get slammed back in our seats by the reveal and some surprising role reversals. We don't know it until it happens, but, thanks to Zeitgeist Stage Company we know what it feels like to experience an intervention.
Photo credit: Becca Lewis (Jenny Reagan, Benjamin Lewin)