In the ladies' room during the intermission of The Dead Guy, I heard one woman say to another, "Every play they do here has some kind of message."
"What do you see as the message of this one?" asked her friend.
A pause. "Oh, you know, how shallow television is."
Right. We all needed to leave our comfortable homes and spend two hours in the theater to absorb that shockingly original concept. The Curious Theatre Company is one of the better companies in town, known for interesting seasons, so I've been trying to figure out why artistic director Chip Walton decided to mount this extended Saturday Night Live skit of a play -- and frankly, I'm flummoxed. It's true that Curious seems to have an ongoing relationship with playwright Eric Coble, whose Bright Ideas, produced at the theater last year, was pretty funny, but isn't it the role of a supportive director to tell a writer when what he's done just isn't working?
The dead guy of the title is Eldon, played by Todd Webster, a regular shlub who's recently lost both his job and his girlfriend. Gina, a producer of television reality shows, seeks him out with a proposition. She'll give him a million dollars to spend over the next week if he'll agree to die at the end of that period by any method the viewers select. The menu of possibilities includes dying peacefully in his sleep, being hit by a bus or being the victim of a chain-saw accident. Eldon agrees to the deal. In subsequent scenes, he buys red pickups for his ungrateful mother and brother and attempts to win back his onetime girlfriend, Christy, with a fancy dinner and a ring. Coble is apparently mocking the paucity of his protagonist's imagination, but he's also revealing the limits of his own. Then Eldon decides he wants to do something good with the little that's left of his life, so he visits a children's hospital, where he creates mayhem and distress by tossing a basketball to a kid with no arms.
These scenes are linked by Gina's professional commentary, reflected on banks of TV monitors and offered in the kind of fake English accent you hear on ads for flavored coffee and Victoria's Secret.
Coble's black-comedy premise calls for the inventiveness and daring of a David Lindsay-Abaire, or the guts he himself showed in Bright Ideas, in which a loving mother, driven to murder by her desire to get her child into the best nursery school, kills her rival with poisoned pesto. But nothing in The Dead Guy is surprising. There's no unexpected plot twist (well, one, but it doesn't carry much punch). Nothing vigorous or wild or original. And the characters are not only cartoonish, but shallowly so. Gina is all slick TV-hostess persona. Eldon's mother and brother are undelineated hicks. His girlfriend's personality seems to shift with the exigencies of the plot. She begins somewhat lively, but ends up a blank by the sentimental concluding scenes. Hollywood has given us a lot of interesting losers, but Eldon isn't one of them. It's not just that I didn't care if he lived or died; it's that I found myself willing the seven days to pass faster as the TV monitors counted them down -- MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY. Was he never going to die? Would nothing interesting ever happen? Couldn't Eldon kill Gina? Try to escape? Attempt to cheat the viewers by killing himself? Use his million dollars to buy protection from Tony Soprano? Or actually become a successful, loving human being, if only for a few minutes?
It's often a mark of creative bankruptcy when a writer spoofs television, which besides being too obvious a target is too good at inadvertently spoofing itself. I mean, how do you make reality programs look any cheesier than they actually are?
So The Dead Guy drags itself along as if playwright Coble just hadn't been able to spot an exit, sputtering out feeble jokes such as Eldon's having "hurled over an eight-year-old girl" at Disneyland and Gina's exclaiming, "You are the most selfish bastard I have ever met. And I work in television!"
Maybe there are actors who could animate this play, but -- despite Michael Duran's terrific set -- those at Curious don't. Todd Webster's Eldon is unable to earn either our interest or our sympathy. Elizabeth Rainer prances and preens expertly as Gina, but the characterization needs more lunacy and more heft. Other performances range from inexpressive to embarrassingly hammy. Jessica Austgen, playing Christy, reveals a flash or two of life before the tepid waters of the script close over her head.
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