The Ruby Sunrise
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 13, 2005
The year is 1927. In a boarding house in Indiana, Ruby is throwing herself on the mercy of her not-entirely-sympathetic aunt—Ruby’s father has just died, she says, and she needs someplace to live for four months, so she can finish constructing a prototype of an invention that’s going to mean the end of war. Her invention is going to make it possible for every person in America to see war, up close, in their living room, and who could bear to wage war after that?
It is only one of the many ironies of The Ruby Sunrise that Ruby is talking about television. Television does get invented during the course of the play, of course, and in fact the latter two-thirds of the play are set in a New York City television studio in 1952, where Ruby’s daughter, Lulu, strives passionately to get the teleplay of her mother’s life written and aired. Lulu shares her mother’s idealism about television, and one of the many accomplishments of Rinne Groff’s play is that it makes the audience mourn the gap between that optimism and the realities of a thoroughly commercialized medium.
The Ruby Sunrise is a complicated, challenging play, sometimes requiring great patience from the audience—but that patience is rewarded with a thought-provoking and rich theatre experience, one I can’t stop thinking about. It’s a risky play, whose various set-ups don’t really start paying off until about two-thirds of the way in—but once the payoffs begin, each new twist brings another new pleasure, capped off by a stunning final scene (the pleasures of which I will not reveal here). And it’s a play that revels in the power of theatre; both Groff’s tightly constructed script and Oskar Eustis’s elegant direction make effective and witty use of all the tools at their command.
Both Groff and Eustis have fun with period conventions (from both the 1920s and the 1950s), stylizing dialogue and imagery. All the production elements are stylized in a way that’s almost tongue-in-cheek, calling to mind Hollywood clichés of the two periods, but never crossing the line into parody; Bray Poor’s music choices and Eugene Lee’s stunning set stand out. The double-casting here is resonant and meaningful. Eustis uses the very deep stage and all the possibilities of Lee’s set to create striking, layered visual compositions.
The first third of the play, set in the Indiana boardinghouse, represented by a conventional turntable set that shifts from barn to kitchen, can feel a little contrived and melodramatic, as Ruby struggles to achieve her dreams in the face of potentially overwhelming opposition. Her family doesn’t support her (Aunt Lois, who runs the boardinghouse, keeps threatening to throw her out), and the person she counts on to help her, fellow boarder and college student Henry, is really more interested in Ruby romantically than scientifically. But just as one’s patience might be wearing thin, the whole play cracks open, leaping forward 30 years in time and revealing the first act’s conventionality to be just that: a consciously chosen set of conventions, which will come back to life, with a twist, later in the play.
The second two thirds of the play take place in a television studio, in the shadow of the Hollywood blacklists. Producer Martin Marcus has hired hotshot writer Tad Rose to give him a brand-new teleplay. Charmed by Lulu and her stories, Tad begins to write "The Ruby Sunrise," a teleplay based on the life of Lulu’s mother, Ruby—but, like the audience, Tad has only heard act one by the time the script goes into rehearsal.
The convolutions of getting the script written in a way that will satisfy Lulu, the network censors, Tad, and the budget department form the story of the second half of the play. The actors who played Ruby, Lois, and Henry in Act I return as actors, hired to act their own roles in the teleplay, in Act III. There are further complications, one of which results in a Marilyn-Monroe-esque dumb blonde, Suzie Tyrone, playing the part of Ruby with giggles and simpers. In the end, the show goes on, and we do get to see at least a commercially sanitized, emotionally softened (made for television, in other words) version of the end of Ruby’s story, which picks up more or less where Act I left off.
The performances are both committed and stylized, again calling to mind Hollywood icons of the play’s two eras, while walking the fine line between homage and parody. Two standouts, to me, are Jason Butler Harner as screenwriter Tad Rose and Anne Scurria as Aunt Lois/Ethel Reed. Harner is nervous and suave all at once, a bundle of conflicting impulses who wants both to succeed and to do the right thing. Scurria is pleasingly sardonic as Lois, and has a grand old time as Ethel Reed, aging diva of stage and screen, who plays Aunt Lois in the teleplay.
The teleplay-within-a-play is perhaps worth a review in itself—tightly constructed, cleverly and subtly weaving together references from Acts I and II of the main play, commenting on both story lines and also commenting with poignant irony on the gap between reality and the media-sanitized version of it we like to view as entertainment. Without ever preaching or even commenting in a literal way, Groff and Eustis make us think about our media-saturated world, about whether or not to trust the images we see on television, and about how those images could be used for a better purpose.
The Ruby Sunrise, above all, is a very smart play—smart writing, smart directing, consistently thoughtful choices made by actors and the design team. It takes risks, it challenges its audience, and it’s so carefully constructed that I’m still figuring out things about it, three days later. And with all that, it still packs an emotional punch.