Sad to say, HotCity doesn't kill with The Dead Guy

What would you do for a million dollars? Would you kill for it? Would you kill yourself? On live TV? That's the premise underlying Eric Coble's black comedy The Dead Guy, which takes broad swipes at America's mindless obsession with so-called "reality" programming. The Dead Guy serves up a tossed salad of mixed media. Even as this HotCity Theatre production unfolds onstage at the Kranzberg Arts Center, a virtual reality-television show is being shot before our eyes and simultaneously airing on wall monitors.

Seeing as how Eldon (the amiable Rusty Gunther) is already pissing his life away on a Colorado barstool, it's not all that tough a challenge for Gina, a brassy TV producer (Lavonne Byers) to cajole him into signing his life away on the dotted line. By agreeing to appear on her outrageous new TV show The Dead Guy, Eldon will reap the financial and fleshy benefits that attend fifteen minutes of fame.

The curious irony here is not that Eldon only has a week in which to enjoy his newfound celebrity, but rather that a script that is only three years old already feels as quaint as a kinescope of Candid Camera. The events surrounding Eldon's public demise are intended to be shocking and grotesque. But how does The Dead Guy compete with our spiraling times?

Lavonne Byers and Rusty Gunther in 
HotCity Theatre’s The Dead Guy.
Lavonne Byers and Rusty Gunther in HotCity Theatre’s The Dead Guy.

Details

The Dead Guy
Through December 6 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard.
Tickets are $25 ($20 for seniors; $15 tickets available for students five minutes before curtain).
Call 314-289-4063 or visit www.hotcitytheatre.org.

You want shock? The same week that this staged fiction opened, a college student in Florida killed himself in front of a virtual audience on the Internet. You want grotesque? Did you see Sarah Palin last week pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey while other less fortunate birds behind her were being gulleted? A script that might have seemed fresh in 2005 stands little chance against these outrages.

Nor are there any universal threads here that might link this story to something timeless (like, say, Faust). Coble seems content to tell us that reality-TV shows have lost their innocence. (Remember Darva Conger?) But that doesn't take two hours. One problem here is the script's tone. As directed by Marty Stanberry, The Dead Guy seems to strive for satire, even as it wants to be relentlessly, sometimes cartoonishly, funny. But farce doesn't always jell with satire. Had Coble taken the time to study Paddy Chayefsky's script for Network, the 1976 movie satire that introduced us to the absurd terrors of reality TV more than a decade before that genre swamped our living rooms, he would have realized that believable characters are more important than fast laughs. Chayefsky believes in the power of words to affect emotions.

Lavonne Byers also believes in words. She is a cunning actress who uses dialogue to construct her performances in the same way that a bricklayer builds a house: one speech at a time. It matters not if these words are written by writers as divergent as Edward Albee and Paul Rudnick. What does matter is that solid, supportive words be there for her to cling to. When they are not — as they are not in this one-dimensional character of the voracious producer — Byers is forced to bluff her way through. She would have us believe there is more here than meets the eye (and ear), when there is probably less.

Ultimately, both Gina and Eldon are victims of the relentless ratings game, and the true villain gets off scot-free. That villain, clearly, is the audience. Because Cober has written a play that is content to excoriate the unseen "them," it's easy to leave The Dead Guy feeling both smug about the mindless idiots who watch reality TV and comforted in knowing that we elitist theatergoers are above such nonsense. Instead of castigating us, as it should, The Dead Guy makes us feel good about ourselves. That's not what satire should be doing. 

 
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