Playwright Richard Greenberg is no lightweight in the world of theatre, and his body of work, more than twenty plays, is prolific. The last of his plays that I saw on Broadway was the 2002 Tony Award-winning, “Take Me Out,” an unusual look into the world of major league baseball and one of its star players, who just happens to be gay. Having grown up in the 1950’s when television quiz shows were the “reality” programs of my black and white T.V. generation, I remember well the prize-winning stars who became our “American Idols” of that distant time. On shows like the “The 64,000 Dollar Question,” and “21,” the contestants included scholarly types like psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, (an expert on boxing), and even a humble cobbler from the Bronx, Gino Prato, whose vast knowledge of opera would win him the top prize. And then there was Herbert Stempel, the brilliant oddball who triumphed for a time on “21,” before scandal rocked the industry. It was a fascinating time, and having already indicated my enthusiasm for our new Town Center Theatre company with my recent review of its stunning “Quilters” production , it was with eager anticipation that I attended the troupe’s recent Opening Night. It was a production of Mr. Greenberg’s “Night and Her Stars,” with its in depth look at that era of quiz show cheating and scandal seen through the rise and fall of both Stempel and his ill-fated “21” successor, Charles Van Doren.
Once again, as was the case in “Quilters,” TCT has assembled a marvelous cast of actors, directed here by a well-known “downtown” actor, Ilich Guardiola. For many years I have had numerous occasions to review Guardiola’s fine Houston performances in various productions from Masquerade Theatre. As witnessed in this troubled production, his credentials as a director may need some fine-tuning, but the fault may reside equally with Mr. Greenberg for his ponderous and over-long script. (It was nearly 11 p.m. when the show ended).
On a happier note, the cast does a marvelous job (many in multiple roles) with what I consider to be a very difficult (if not fully satisfying) piece of theatre. At the head of that list would be Joey Milillo (in a compelling performance as the strangely brilliant but emotionally conflicted Herbert Stempel), and Chris Tennison (reminding me at times of comedian Jonathan Winters, and outstanding as explosive Dan Enright, the blustering and conniving network executive who exploits Stempel’s genius and then betrays his trust). Also outstanding is the performance of Aaron Stryk in an intriguing characterization of Charles Van Doren, the contestant chosen by Enright to topple Stempel. In an interesting way, the youthful and handsome Mr. Stryk seemed to embody the smoothly intellectual and very blue-blooded, real life Van Doren, an instructor at Columbia University, who was, in fact, the son of a family of intellectuals headed by his father, Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. (Well-cast in this production with Crighton Theatre’s popular Don Hampton, who reliably played a variety of other roles here, including a network sponsor, a reporter, and a Congressman). Travis Bryant gives several dependable performances, including a notable one as early “Today Show” host, Dave Garroway. Kyle Greer is deliciously hyper as “21” emcee, Jack Barry, and has several other roles, including a fine performance as a probing investigator of the quiz show scandals. Linda Royce and Ben Warner round out a capable cast, and Stempel’s troubled and often alienated wife, Toby, is played by Laura Kaldis. But somehow we never seem to arrive at clarity in terms of their deeper relationship as the strain of his celebrity drives the couple apart. And in many ways it is a lack of clarity and focus that haunts this production on a variety of levels. Allow me to elaborate.
In the first place, the director, perhaps with an arty notion of reflecting the black and white character of early television, elected to have a minimal set (scenic designer, Mr. Milillo, scenic artist, Erin Baezner), consisting of a desk, a few chairs and other odds and ends, all in charcoal black on the relatively bare stage. Can you say “boring” boys and girls? But there are moments of crimson backlighting or projections of tense contestants faces to break the visual monotony that prevails. Costume designs of Tiffani Fuller were quite adequate, and the sound designs of Janel Badrina were well carried off whether a baby was crying or a noisy congressional hearing was underway. But the lighting (designer, Gino Chelakis) was often so dim the characters could not be clearly seen on the stage. The sleep-inducing staging was much too dark and static, and, with the exception of Greer’s amusingly high-strung Jack Barry, the several quiz show segments lacked all the energy, excitement, and tension that characterized the popularity of those early television programs. But there was powerful tension amid the interplay of the lead characters, and one cannot underestimate the accomplishments of actors Milillo, Tennison, and Stryk, as they delivered assorted very long monologues from Greenberg’s endless script that should win them all Tony Awards for memorization alone.
As to who should plan on seeing this show, I would recommend it to fellow actors who want to see talented peers at work, and also to “serious” theater intellectuals who might enjoy spending weeks in a college theatre course discussing the subtleties of the play’s battle between good and evil, and the impact of television on greed, power, corruption, and culture. It might require an entire semester to unravel all of the work’s tedious mysteries. Meanwhile, caution is advised for those who are easily bored. I keep thinking of one line in the play:
“The whole affair has been nothing! Nothing at all — A show!”
But that is too cruel an assessment for this young company that is working very hard to bring thoughtful theatre to Montgomery County and The Woodlands. I’m sure better days lie ahead.
Through September 15th “Night and Her Stars” will be performed in the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, but there will be no performances September 7-9. One Thursday night performance will be presented at 8 p.m. on September 13th. For tickets and information call 832-592-9697, or visit the website at http://www.towncentertheatre.com.
(The Courier 9.2.07)