When a scumbag becomes a TV talk-show celebrity, the world is in trouble. And so English playwright Alan Ayckbourn skewers the cult of the celebrity, the mendacity of television and the public's infinite appetite for manipulative trash in Man of the Moment. With a subject such as this, sparks ought to fly. But Ayckbourn chooses instead a laid-back irony laced with a little wit--he seems to draw from a variety of sources, from Chekhov to Monsieur Hulot--that just doesn't have the guts to get where it's trying to go. And the Denver Center Theatre Company's tedious production doesn't help move things along.

The unctuous TV "reporter" Jill Rillington has arrived at Vic Park's villa in the south of Spain to do a "hard-hitting" piece on the ironic events that led to Vic's current celebrity as a TV talk-show host. She's staging a meeting between Vic and the nerdy Douglas Beechey, whose life crossed paths with Vic's seventeen years before. As it turns out, Vic had held up the bank in which Beechey worked, and Beechey had charged and overcome the bandit. Beechey became a local hero--for a year or so--and Vic went to jail for nine years, during which he wrote his memoirs. When he got out of the joint, he read some of his work on a local radio station. Soon Vic is a celebrity and poor old Beechey is forgotten.

How can the modern media make a hero out of a manifest villain? Vic attempted to rob a bank with a loaded weapon. He has two children by poor, beleaguered Trudy. He is a rotten husband and an even worse employer--feeding his ego by humiliating everyone around him.

Beechey is the opposite of Vic in every way--a little dull, perhaps, and terribly awkward, he is nevertheless brave, modest, humble and good-hearted. We learn that Beechey married the only person injured by Vic's shotgun, a once-beautiful woman who lost her ear and part of her face when the gun went off; she never felt up to the responsibility of having children and now won't even leave her small house. But Beechey's very real virtues weigh nothing on the scales of contemporary values created by the media. He doesn't have the glamour or the phony wisdom of a narcissist like Vic. And he certainly doesn't have the money. The bravest thing he ever did is now counted foolish--and even Vic blames Beechey for the gun going off.

Sound familiar? Blaming the good guy is a very lively modern sport. But the trouble is, it takes too long here to find out about the two main male characters. Director Laird Williamson's snail's pacing in the first act drains the viewer's energy. Although the second act picks up a bit, by then it's hard to care--none of the characters is very sympathetic, because none is a full-blown human being. Beechey is too broadly drawn, Trudy is too vague, and the humiliated nanny is too absurd for us to care about. Vic, of course, is worthy of nothing but absolute contempt.

The best thing about this production is the astonishing set by Andrew V. Yelusich. The patio of the villa includes part of a swimming pool--Vic dives in, Trudy lights floating candles and sets them adrift, etc. In fact, the set is so good, it steals our attention away. We spend more time wondering about the interior decor than listening to dialogue.

John Hutton gives yet another fine performance as the sadistic Vic--elegant in his easy British accent, graceful as he dips and two-steps to country-Western music, and cunningly virulent as he undermines everyone in his path. Mark A. Rubald as Douglas Beechey has moments of glorious hilarity and positive intelligence. Carol Halstead gives Trudy a degree of acrid warmth. Andrew Philpot gives a charmed performance as Vic's manager, Kenny, and Gabriella Cavallero is appropriately apathetic as Marta, the maid. But Jacqueline Antaramian is miscast as the icy Jill Rillington--never for a moment is she convincing as a TV moron.

Ayckbourn gets one thing right: The opiate of the masses is indeed television, with its inverted values and mesmerizing trivialities. As Vic says, "This is television; it's all fiction." But it strikes me that his play would work better on TV than it does on stage. The swimming pool would make more sense, for one thing. And Ayckbourn's inability to make three-dimensional human beings wouldn't matter.

Talk about irony...


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