Broadcast Blues

THE FAMILY OF MANN
By Theresa Rebeck
The New Theatre

There's a scene near the end of Theresa Rebeck's The Family of Mann in which Ren (John Krewson) questions his sitcom-writing colleague and now lover Belinda (Laurie McConnell) about what she really thought Hollywood would be like. Did she really believe that it was going to be The Dick Van Dyke Show? Did she really believe that Hollywood was a place for people of high ideals who wanted to create art? When did she ever get the idea that the television sitcom was some sort of higher calling?

Actually, Ren doesn't ask those questions, but by that point in the play I was.

Playwright Rebeck has all the credentials to share insider observations of the machinations that go on in television studios. With such shows as NYPD Blue and LA Law attached to Rebeck's resume, The Family of Mann can claim authenticity. Belinda, like Rebeck, comes to Hollywood with a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, lands a job writing for a new sitcom and learns she has made a Faustian bargain. As one actor describes the deal, you can do Shakespeare in the park for $300 a week, or you can do shit on television for $10,000 per week. Executive producer Ed (played with smarmy aplomb by Peter Mayer) says he wants his production team to be a family, making quality television for the viewing family. But, as it turns out, Ed -- can you believe it? -- is a megalomaniac, a ruling patriarch of a dysfunctional family who believes in loyalty and ratings.

The feisty Belinda finds herself in a raucous boy's club in which she must play according to shifting but ever-sexist rules. Staff gofer Clara (Khamara Pettus) is treated as puppy dog, sex interest, good-luck charm or vermin -- according to the men's moods. Bill (Jerry Vogel), the director of The Family of Mann (the sitcom-within-the-play), invites Clara over for a private pool party one week, explodes at her the next when script changes are delivered late. Belinda finds no camaraderie with her fellow writers. When Sally (Rosemary Watts) and Steve (Mack Harnell) realize Belinda has more imagination and talent than they do, they do everything to sabotage her efforts. The other writer, Ren -- with whom she falls into bed with all the passion of a plot device -- is a true believer in television, arguing that Tony Randall is equal to Moliere.

If not for the television setting, this would be a play about office politics, but Rebeck presents the Machiavellian intrigues as if the audience were as naive as protagonist Belinda. In the wake of books, films and plays such as You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, Hurlyburly, The Player, Permanent Midnight, Four Dogs and a Bone and Speed-the-Plow, Rebeck underestimates her audience's knowledge of such matters. Even if all you read is the Star, you know as much as Rebeck informs -- that Tinseltown just isn't a very nice place.

Director Bobby Miller tries to enliven this lame affair by putting eight video monitors on or near the stage area. On those monitors the actual sitcom appears, with Ed, Belinda, Ren, Sally and Steve doubling as the sitcom family. This relief from the tedium on the stage doesn't alleviate the failings of the play. Rebeck writes for the stage as if for television -- brief episodic scenes that fail to deliver a consistent narrative or emotional tone. During the frequent blackouts, familiar television theme songs play. I was hoping, with all those TVs, we'd at least get to see some commercials.

Rebeck's strongest writing emerges when she depicts the subtle, and not so subtle, forms of sexism in the workplace, and when she begins to consider television from a broader perspective -- the ways in which the imagined lives on television affect the real lives of those who watch. But Rebeck fails to explore these ideas with any depth. Whenever an idea begins to develop, another blackout arrives and she cuts to the next scene. Inevitably these scenes become little more than shallow vignettes.

Despite the weakness of the script, the dedication and talent of the players is commendable, especially McConnell, who gains our sympathy as Belinda, if not our empathy. She fights her losing battles with a nervous energy, as if she knows she's near the edge of the abyss but proceeds anyway. When she falls, she is a classic portrait of someone who feels wholly isolated, who knows she's going to become little more than an anecdote around the office.

The real charmer of the evening is Pettus as Clara. As the black office girl in a white-power world, she pours every cup of coffee with irony rather than cream or sugar. Clara's anger smolders as Belinda's flames. But as Belinda's naivete becomes irksome, Clara's yearning is more poignant. She sees Whoopi and Denzel -- the only blacks who've made it -- as distant and unattainable as gods at the other end of the lot. In the second act Clara sprouts wings -- Rebeck's vague nod to magical realism -- and Pettus carries them with a nonchalant grace. Pettus contains the lightness and gravity of her character in ways far beyond this weak family circle.

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