If you could live your life in sitcom land and just forget about war, poverty, homelessness, and the complexities of human sexuality, would you?
Playwright Michael Elyanow poses this question in his very funny, very smart The Idiot Box, back for only its second L.A. production ever, and a highly entertaining one at that as staged by Theatre 68 at the NoHo Arts Center.
It’s been eight years now since Angelinos were first introduced to The Idiot Box’s six New York penthouse-sharing 30somethings, their perfectly harmonious lives accompanied by a requisite laugh track (and audience “ooohs” and “aaahs” at sentimental moments), a sitcom sextet alternately cute, ditzy, dumb, and wisecracking … though perhaps not not the most intellectually stimulating bunch.
They are neurotic paramedic Mark (Jordan Wall); spoiled rich girl (and curtain designer) Chloe (Julie Dolan); sex-crazed male model Billy (Carlo Samame); new-age hippie acupuncturist Fiona (Erin Poland); Fiona’s cynical brother (and ad agency exec) Connor (Grey Rodriguez), and Connor’s control-freak, romance novelist wife Stephanie (Emma Servant).
And since every sitcom must have its guest stars, “this week’s episode” features appearances by Naval Reserves doctor Harvey (Carlos Castillo), who’s been dating Fiona; Australian “dog-shusherer” Veronica (Shelly Hacco), who helps pet owners with their problem pooches; and a cabaret singer (AJ Brody) whom Billy meets in female impersonator persona, clueless to the fact that “Ramona” is really Raymond.
Deliberately bad sitcom-level jokes (when Stephanie kisses Connor, 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 Connor.)
As for plot threads, they’re your standard sitcom staples. Mark’s porn purchase gets sent by accident to Stephanie’s ex-stepbrother’s Bar Mitzvah; Connor 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 a chubby chaser who’s trying to fatten her up; and Billy suggests an evening of theater as the perfect way for insomniac Chloe to get a good night’s sleep.
The cute-but-dumb male model does indeed snooze 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 fellow theatergoer named Omar (Jonte LeGras) shows up at her doorstep, unable to forget the look in Chloe’s eyes as she sat transfixed by Olga, Masha, and Irina.
And it is here that The Idiot Box reveals its true colors, and not those of a 22-minute sitcom that may have some in the audience scratching their heads and wondering, “Am I going to have to sit through two hours of this?”
Without giving too much away, African-American Omar’s arrival from the real world eighty-sixes the laugh track as characters find themselves cogitating about things they would never previously have thought about while using words that would get any sitcom booted off network TV … and for the most part, despite some initial shock, they all seem to take to the change.
All but one.
Playwright Elyanow has clearly done his homework in what makes a studio audience break into laughter, whether “recorded live” or not-so-secretly canned. When planning their theater date, Chloe suggests, “Why don’t we do … Three Sisters?” to which Billy responds, “Before or after the play?” And later, when Chloe reminds Billy during a game of Pyramid that Anorexia and Bulimia aren’t countries in South America,” the cute-but-dumb model responds, “Then where are they?”
Then comes Omar’s arrival, and though things darken considerably, the laughs remain, albeit now more character-driven than the one-liners that once flew fast and furious, and by the time Act Two reaches its climax, you might just think you’re in TV drama land … and never more so than when Elyanow at last reveals why six relative strangers came to live together as friends.
Under Rick Shaw’s direction, a talented young cast create colorful, complex characters. Yes, there is considerably more age disparity than indicated in Elyanow’s script, and I wouldn’t have minded if some performances got taken down a notch when real lives replace fantasy ones, particularly in a theater whose farthest seat is only a few rows back. Still, these are relatively minor complaints in an ensemble that will both keep you laughing and get you to thinking.
Wall’s increasingly frustrated, increasingly belligerent Mark is the cast standout, but I also enjoyed Dolan’s transition from superficial to world-aware and her very real relationship with a dynamic, nuanced LeGras. (Dolan scores bonus points for Chloe’s lengthy, convoluted explanation of how the six friends came together, a lickety-split monolog that sounds suspiciously like the recap of a sitcom pilot.)
Also quite good are Rodriguez’s dynamic, angry husband with dog troubles, Servant’s blocked writer in crisis mode, Poland’s bright and bubbly acupuncturist, Hacco’s sassy Aussie “dog-shusherer,” and Castillo’s well-meaning “feeder.”
Theater newbie Samame proves a natural as the proverbial “dumb hunk” who discovers parts of himself he never knew existed, and though a particularly fine Brody may at first seem too muscular and manly-looking to pass for female, this apparent miscasting actually serves to show how either clueless (or subconsciously gay) Billy is.
Scenic designer James Logan has created an attractive sitcom-ready set that transforms into the script’s various locales, though truth be told, The Idiot Box needs a stage large enough to allow coffee bar, theater, etc., to coexist throughout. (Elyanow’s script specifies that “scene changes should be lightning quick” … and they aren’t.) Also, a pivotal scene involving Mark and Omar that is supposed to take place on a wintry balcony doesn’t, or at least not clearly enough, so audiences may find themselves wondering just who did what and how.
Christina Robinson’s lighting design varies effectively from sitcom bright to real-life subtle, and uncredited costumes are both character appropriate and first-rate. Ashley Clark’s sound design supplies all the requisite laughs and “sympathy sighs,” with composers Cody Matthew Johnson and Mason McSpadden providing just the right sitcom title credits theme song.
Additional program credits go to Ronnie Marmo (producer), Dave Lara (stage manager, light and sound opp), and Cistone, Brad Bentz, Tim Drier, and member of The 68 Cent Theatre Company (construction crew).
Angelinos who missed The Idiot Box back in 2007 can count themselves lucky to get a second chance to appreciate one of the funniest, smartest plays of the last ten years. I’m certainly glad I did.
NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
May 31, 2015
Photos: Emma Servant