nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
August 12, 2012
Media criticism is increasingly a necessary art. It's now a given that the frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle is a big part of what ails our national dialogue. What does the reign of the sound bite mean in terms of our understanding of international affairs? What happens when information moves at light speed? What constitutes an expert? The Pundit offers an incisive take on what we accept as "the news" and the people who package it. The play was written by and stars John Feffer, who himself has been a pundit and long-time observer of media and politics.
The protagonist is an ambitious and caustic Washington insider, the director for foreign policy for an organization cryptically named The Center. The action takes place essentially in real time as the pundit sits in a studio, giving a series of interviews to various media outlets. In between appearances he's on the phone, juggling his home life and vying for a plum position as Assistant Under-Secretary (we don't learn of what, the point is that it doesn't matter, just as what "The Center" is "for" is equally unimportant). The situation escalates after he serves as an impromptu TV news expert on a terrorist attack on an obscure (fictional) little nation on the Russian border.
The pundit is good with words, bandying about comforting-sounding phrases like "the situation on the ground" and "robust policy," deftly obscuring the lack of any substance to his talk. There's a subtle comedy in watching the nominal expert "backstage," especially when phrases are repeated across interviews, and it's made clear that the newscast operates mostly through the semblance of intense gravity and control over the situation. Viewers are encouraged to submit their views online about a situation no one seems to know much about.
The plot takes a turn for the Hollywood, playing out tensions between the personal and the political, leading up to a dramatic conclusion. It's a stretch to be moved by the drama when we thought we were comfortably in the land of satire; the dramatic plotting is perhaps an unnecessary move, as the play is at its sharpest and liveliest when the pundit is on the air.
The set couldn't be simpler—a folding chair, a long table—but when the pundit is patched in via satellite to news broadcasts, which are projected on the wall behind him, the CNN feeling comes to life. This is thanks in great part to Carol Spring's pitch-perfect performance as a gravely pretty, unflappably professional newscaster. I could have foregone his interactions with his family and colleagues and watched a whole play in that space, it's so delicious to see the absurd machinery behind the media exposed. Nevertheless, at just under an hour and a half, The Pundit delivers thought-provoking material in just the right dose.