nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 16, 2006
If I say that was Vera, then that was Vera. On account of I'm the one running things here. Is that clear enough? I think it is. When you go and get your own show, Dan, then you can say who's Vera and who is not Vera. Until then, Dan, while you're here in my show, Vera is whoever the fuck I say she is.
I’m the commander—see, I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.
Two quotes, one from a maniacal quizmaster named Bob in C.J. Hopkins's magnificent new play screwmachine/eyecandy, the other from the President of the United States of America, juxtaposed here only to demonstrate how gosh-darned timely this particularly play seems to be.
screwmachine/eyecandy Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob (the full title) is one scary show. As directed by John Clancy and performed to perfection by David Calvitto as Bob, James Cleveland as his announcer, and Bill Coelius and Nancy Walsh as the victims—I mean, contestants—it's a breathtaking event: theatre not merely as cautionary fable or wakeup call, but as urgent attempt to drag its audience kicking and screaming out of their chairs and onto a stage—any stage—where they might regain their rights and dignity and engage in their world with passion and vigor.
The play looks like a game show; well, like a game show in a living room. Well that's where game shows take place, isn't it?—Simon Holdsworth's brilliantly antic set puts the TV at the center and the comfy easy chairs right in front of it, and then turns the whole thing around so that we understand that the place where we spend our lives is also the set of a TV show (which is, on some metaphorical level, precisely true as well).
screwmachine also feels like a game show: contestants (here, Dan and Maura Brown, a typical ordinary American couple from Johnstown, New York or Johnstown, Pennsylvania, or one of those towns somewhere) are in their ordained places, and to wild applause the host Big Bob makes his entrance and starts to behave just like a game show host. You know: chit-chat with the contestants, wads of cash in his pockets, the promise that rules will be promulgated and questions will be asked.
But this week, Big Bob's announcer Chip Devlin booms out the news that the rules are: there are no rules. The questions start to not make sense. Order disintegrates into chaos and violence. Bob stops pretending to like the contestants. The center does not hold; things fall apart.
What are Dan and Maura gonna do now? What are we gonna do now?
Because—and here's where screwmachine gets tricky—that announcement is for the audience (us, alive, in the seats in the theatre) as well. Everything about Hopkins's extraordinarily controlled script feels uneasy and uncomfortable; this is as much NOT like a play as the game being played out inside it is NOT like a game show. No rules: just people going nuts over winning products. What's that about?
If you've seen some of Hopkins's other works—the seminal Horse Country, for example—then you'll probably have a clue or two about what's afoot in this very unsettling theatre experience called screwmachine/eyecandy. This is a play that's defiantly and smugly not a play; instead, a happening that spirals in and out of itself, sucking us in to its faux world and then spitting us out again, trying to focus us on what's going on in this particular room expressly so that when we leave it we'll stay focused on what's going on in all the other rooms we go to afterward. It's not an easy ride; it doesn't want to be. But if you come prepared to listen, really listen to what's being said; to be wary of the cues and the angles that a slick host like Big Bob will drop and/or spew, then you can find yourself thoroughly shaken up when your hour in the theatre is finished.
Clancy's staging of this intricate puzzle of a play feels pretty near flawless to me, punching up the stuff that lets us into the thing and letting the rest of it unfold like a dream turning into a nightmare on fast forward. Calvitto is spellbinding as Bob, his concentration never wavering as he controls the entire universe of the show—which includes us—without ever making anything resembling human contact with anyone. Cleveland, offstage as announcer Chip Devlin and occasionally onstage as a scary gorilla-like version of Vanna White is terrific. Coelius is wrenchingly real as Dan, the hapless contestant, while Walsh makes a startling and moving journey from eager passivity to beaten-down self-awareness as Maura, the character who really is our surrogate, or at least our guide, into the all-too-recognizable world of screwmachine/eyecandy.
Theatre doesn't have to be this hard on an audience, but after the rigorous gut-punch of a show like this you realize that hard is good; affirming, even. The Dr. Strangelove and George Orwell allusions in the title are intended and entirely apt, by the way: see screwmachine/eyecandy; do not stop worrying.