nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 15, 2009
Late in John William Schiffbauer's ambitious new play, Live Broadcast, a high-powered talent agent advises her movie star client, "You can't take sides. Period. You work in Hollywood." It's a cautionary sentiment that the author wants to debunk—or, at least, debate. Can a celebrity express his political views without damaging his career? Or is it possible to keep those beliefs private and still live by one's own moral code? These are just two of the many ideas Schiffbauer explores in a play that is loaded with them. Live Broadcast's message sometimes gets diluted in both form and execution, but there's no doubt that it's the product of a young dramatist with a lot on his mind.
When Tom, a hot young heartthrob with conservative political views, agrees to debate Madeline, a liberal Congresswoman, on his buddy Jack's hot-button political talk show, Tom's hard-nosed agent, Jane, gets nervous. She fears he'll say something inflammatory that will affect both his career and her livelihood. But, Tom feels strongly about his desire (and his right) to speak his mind. Meanwhile, Jack's invitation turns out to be a ratings ploy complicated by his illicit seduction of Madeline. Needless to say, sparks of all sorts are soon flying.
Live Broadcast has a lot of meat to it. There's a high-stakes urgency that courses through the play, and Schiffbauer doesn't shy away from making pointed commentaries on the parasitic nature of the media and the erosion of American culture and politics. But there's still some fat that could stand to be trimmed. The play doesn't really heat up until the fateful Act II broadcast, suggesting that Schiffbauer is more interested in the second-half payoff than the first-half set-up (so much so that he might want to consider streamlining Live Broadcast into a lean, mean one-act). Many of the play's plot and ideological points get numerous repetitions, and Schiffbauer has a tendency to withhold key information just a little too long (e.g. the audience doesn't learn that Tom is a conservative until 30 minutes into the show: by then, every character has talked about it as if it were common knowledge).
Similarly, director Melissa Atteberry doesn't seem as interested in Act I as she is in Act II: the former is directed so casually it undercuts the play's urgency, while the latter takes on a second wind-like energy it hasn't built up to. Atteberry lets her cast get away with too many gaffes in the volume department (there were significant portions of the show I could barely hear and I was sitting in the third row), and inexplicably puts one actor in particular —Amanda Brooke Lerner, who plays Jane—at a distinct disadvantage by staging her with her back to the audience for at least half the show.
Live Broadcast's four-person cast struggles with the production's many obstacles. Andrea Day and Kyle Knauf are most successful at overcoming them, giving confident and convincing performances as Madeline and Jack, respectively. Schiffbauer's performance as Tom follows the same trajectory as his script: strong in the second act, but casual and loose in the first. And, Lerner barely dents Jane's calculating good-cop-bad-cop nature, but that's hardly her fault. Most actors would be hard-pressed to make an impact with the hand she's been dealt.
Still, it's always good to see the emergence of a new writer who's not afraid of big picture ideas. Hopefully Live Broadcast will help Schiffbauer steer his writing towards a more fluid convergence of drama and polemic the next time around.