Six 20somethings live in perfect harmony in a New York penthouse. Their lives are laugh track-accompanied, and canned audience “ooohs” and “aaahs” are heard at sentimental moments. They are cute, ditzy, dumb, wisecracking, and a bit dull.
No, this is not the latest network sitcom or a rerun of Friends, but rather Michael Elyanow’s clever, highly satisfying tour-de-force comedy The Idiot Box, one of my favorite new plays of the past ten years.
Following its 2007 Scenie-winning West Coast Premiere at Open Fist Theatre, The Idiot Box now makes a welcome return to Southern California in a bigger-stage, bigger-bucks production at Cal State Fullerton, one that will make you rethink any negative preconceptions you may have about “college theater.”
The six couldn’t-be-happier, couldn’t-be-funnier, couldn’t-be-better friends and penthouse-mates are neurotic paramedic Mark (Matt Gardner); spoiled rich girl (and curtain designer) Chloe (Brooke Diane Flint); sex-crazed male model Billy (Mark Bartlett); new-age hippie acupuncturist Fiona (Eva Dailey); cynical hubby (and ad agency exec) Conor (Jason Oles) and Conor’s control-freak, romance novelist wife Stephanie (Grace-Ann Murphy). And since every sitcom must have its guest stars, “this week’s episode” features appearances by Naval Reserves doctor Harvey (Sean Scofield), who’s been dating Fiona; Australian “dog-shusherer” Veronica (Deanna Ott), who helps pet owners with their problem pooches; and a cabaret singer (Nick Rocz) whom Billy meets in female impersonator persona, clueless to the fact that “Ramona” is really Raymond.
Bad sitcom-level jokes (when Stephanie kisses Conor, he quips “Well…my participle’s no longer dangling”) are followed by obviously prerecorded laughter, indicated in Elyanow’s published script by emoticons varying according to whether they are full-on canned laughs, gentle canned laughs, or “fudd-up creepy” canned laughs. (An emoticon heart calls for an “awww” or “sympathy sigh,” as when the characters catch sight of the puppy Stephanie has bought for Conor.)
As for plot threads, they’re your usual sitcom staples. Mark’s porn purchase gets sent by accident to Stephanie’s ex-stepbrother’s Bar Mitzvah; Conor tries to hide the puppy’s hatred of him from Stephanie; the guys clue Billy in to the fact that the Married Girl he’s got the hots for is in reality a Single Guy; Fiona discovers that Harvey is trying to fatten her up; and Billy suggests an evening at the theater as the perfect way for insomniac Chloe to get a good night’s sleep.
The cute-but-dumb male model does indeed sleep through Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, but not Chloe, the sibling trio’s desire to go to Moscow triggering vague longings in the up-till-now airhead of a blonde, longings that become considerably less vague when a dark-skinned fellow theatergoer named Omar (Willie Leonard-Fortes) shows up at her doorstep, unable to forget the look in Chloe’s eyes as she sat transfixed by Olga, Masha, and Irina.
Omar is, you see, from the real world, the world outside sitcom land, and his arrival not only triggers a change in The Idiot Box’s lighting plot, but opens the eyes of five of the six housemates to war, poverty, homelessness, AIDS, and the complexities of human sexuality, while at the same time eliminating the laugh track that’s been part of their lives and spicing up their vocabulary with language that would get any sitcom booted off network TV. Only Mark remains the steadfast holdout, doing his darnedest to get things to return to the funnier, simpler way they were.
Some may consider The Idiot Box a daring choice for a student production, even at the university level, for its language and subject matter, but those in charge of Cal State Fullerton’s theater program (among the top sixteen most highly recommended undergraduate programs in the nation) realize they are training students for major Broadway and regional theater productions, and plan their season accordingly.
Not surprisingly, given the highly competitive nature of the program, the student talent on stage at the state-of-the-art Young Theatre is as good as it gets. In particular, Flint shines in her transition from superficial to world-aware, Oles in his dynamic work as an angry young husband, and Bartlett as the “dumb hunk” who discovers parts of himself he never knew existed. Murphy excels in a tour-de-force phone monolog as a blocked writer in crisis mode, Ott makes for one sexy, sassy Aussie, and Rocz steals every scene he’s in as an out-and-proud drag performer, singing a sultry, seductive “You’ve Changed” to boot. Dailey, Gardner, Scofield, and Leonard-Forte complete the cast terrifically, each with his or her own standout moments.
The ensemble benefit from the spot-on direction of CSUF faculty member Dr. Joesph Arnold, and voice and movement coaching by faculty member Margaret Kemp. Even more impressive are The Idiot Box’s all-student design team. Scenic designer Lauren Browning has created the detailed, multilevel penthouse apartment set Elyanow must have been dreaming of when writing his play. Joey Welden’s lighting design is superbly varied, cueing us into whether the play is operating in sitcom or post-sitcom mode, and upping the suspense. Bryan Williams’ sound design incorporates just the right, deliberately fake laugh track (though even more laughs than indicated in Elyanow’s script wouldn’t be too many), in addition to sitcom-appropriate theme music and varied effects. Emma Tremmel’s costume, hair, and makeup design are not only right for every character, but signal the changes wrought by the intrusion of the outside world.
Dozens of students and faculty members receive program credit on the long list of production staff members, including faculty production manager/stage manager supervisor Debra Garcia Lockwood, stage manager Soona Lee, and assistant stage managers Payden Ackerman and Kristin Neu.
Since The Idiot Box had its West Coast Premiere in a 99-seat plan theater, it’s probably wishful thinking to hope for a local big stage professional production, theaters like the Pasadena Playhouse and the Geffen preferring to get first dibs on new projects. That’s a shame, because Elyanow’s play works so well on a larger scale.
For proof of the above, StageSceneLA readers are advised to take advantage of The Idiot Box’s brief CSUF run. Not only will you be treated to a stunningly original comedy at bargain prices, The Idiot Box will give you plenty to talk about on the drive back home, and what more can a theatergoer wish for than that?
Young Theatre, California State University, Fullerton.
April 23, 2011