The 3rd annual Colorado New Play Summit began tonight with "Our House," Theresa Rebeck's dramady about the increasingly thin line between news and entertainment on television.
The first hour of this new 90-minute play is excellent. The characters, who range from relatively unlikable to cringe-inducingly loathsome, are memorable and sharply drawn - including a cynical, profit-minded network head, a beautiful and ambitious news anchor, and four roommates with serious issues. Rebeck's dialogue sizzles. The characters often talk over one another, heightening the sense of realism. The situations are cleverly handled, especially a meeting of the roommates, which takes a reality-TV twist. As life imitated reality TV - pulling together some of the play's most important threads - it looked as though "Our House" might be a great contemporary play.
But as is often the case in real life, everything went awry with a gunshot. With Jennifer, the news anchor, on the scene to cover a hostage situation, Merv, the passive-aggressive TV-addict, suddenly begins spouting articulate criticisms of the medium.
It's not bad dialogue at all, except that it doesn't even remotely sound like Merv. It sounds as though Rebeck - who's written extensively for television - really wanted to say some things about the medium, but lacked a character who could give them voice. The final few minutes are a grab-bag of interesting lines, spoken by whoever happens to be available. Even Wes, the virulently anti-intellectual network head, turns philosophical.
Rob Campbell as Merv and Kate Nowlin as Alice, the household antagonist whose hatred of Merv reduces her to incoherent stammering, deliver particularly strong performances. But as the writing falls off near the end, so does the acting, and several actors were reduced to mugging.
One decision by director Daniel Fish works so well that I'm surprised I've never seen it elsewhere: At times, two spaces spaces exist simultaneously on stage - for instance, Jennifer, in the TV studio, walks past Merv slumped in front of the TV in his house. It's wonderfully theatrical and prevents set changes from slowing the TV-like pace. Of course, it's only possible because Andrew Lieberman's unfinished plywood set is completely non-naturalistic.
"Our House," which opened January 11 and closes Sunday, is the first of three world premiers on the Denver Center season. The New Play Summit continues Friday with two staged readings and a full production of "Plainsong," which runs through Feb. 23. Saturday will feature two more readings and a full production of "Lydia," which runs through March 1.
Kudos to the Denver Center Theatre Company and its artistic director, Kent Thompson, for making the commitment to new work. There's no way to know how a play is going to work until you see it, and to see your work for the first time in such a polished and thoughtful performance must be a playwright's dream.