nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
February 15, 2009
It goes without saying that American culture has a problematic relationship with its celebrities. Long gone are the days when our stars could cavort in relative secrecy. Now, in the information age, we are used to—and may, in fact, already be calloused about—the rabid and continual spin we're given with regard to even the smallest blip on the celebrity meter and, rather than protecting them, we wait for the inevitable fall. It's this relationship that Joe Penhall explores in his play Dumb Show, now receiving its New York premiere with The Lighthouse Theatre Company at Under St. Marks.
The play follows Barry (Alexander Smith), a TV comic who thinks he's making an under-the-table deal with a couple of private bankers (played by Heather Daley and Anthony Caronna). The too-good-to-be-true deal turns out to be just that, as the bankers are not who they claim to be. They maneuver Barry into compromising himself, which they catch on film, and proceed to press Barry so that they can ride the crest of his crumbling life and career for their own gain.
The play is well-written and fun to hear aloud. It's one of those skillfully crafted scripts where the power relationship among all three characters is fluid, shifting interestingly from moment to moment, so that in the end you don't know which character you should trust, if any. Penhall reaches a bit to keep this tension going, as I found myself well ahead of Barry realizing that he'd been entrapped and Liz (Daley) and Greg (Caronna) do not have as much power as they thought. But, for all that, Dumb Show does a good job of showing that the system that tears the celebrities down is just as shallow and venal as celebrity culture can be. It is also telling, though, that this play, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2004, already seems a little behind-the-curve. There's too little shock now, five more years into the instant celebrity culture.
As Barry, Smith does very interesting work. While the three actors seem a little young for their roles, Smith is able to evoke some of an early-career star's need to be needed. He's got more than a little Ethan Hawke in his vulnerable, underplayed performance.
The show's directors, Kailee McGee and Rich Costales, come from TV and film training and struggle a little with the play's pacing and stage pictures, often leaving the characters seated for too long and not quite tapping all the tension necessary to drive the play's long-ish scenes. But they have some nice ideas, as well—such as when they have Daley stand right in front of the audience primping herself, like she's in front of a mirror, as she talks about her body issues. In an intimate space like Under St. Marks, this choice very strongly involves the audience in a way that too much of the rest of the production does not.