BDI Theater Company
at Chicago Actors Ensemble
I happened to see “Trashvision!” on the same day I read of Douglas Edwards’s death. Edwards was the first network news anchor–he headed CBS’s national news broadcast from 1948 until he retired and was replaced by Walter Cronkite. The newspaper obituaries for Edwards carried comments about his diligence, fairness, and integrity. Can you imagine anyone even trying to say that with a straight face about the people who have taken up Edwards’s mantle these days? More to the point, can you imagine the public believing it if anyone did?
Well, yes, sadly. At least I can. Two generations of TV have bred a public that’s at once cynical and gullible. We love to mock the idiots on our home screens, yet we’re inclined to believe them too–if only because we want to believe in the false security they offer as they tell us of other people’s troubles. Even bad news sells in a medium that compresses information, entertainment, and advertising into one slick and hypnotic home-viewing experience.
The youthful BDI Theater Company addresses these matters in “Trashvision,” a program of two one-act plays about broadcast journalism’s penchant for making and breaking celebrities. This double portrait of boobs and their tube isn’t particularly subtle or overly skillful, but its bluntness and amateurishness contain a force that slicker shows might lack.
The better of the two plays is an original BDI effort, 5 Very Live. Seen last spring at the Off Off Loop Theater Festival, it is written by BDI member David VanMatre and directed by John Gaynor in a style that’s disjointed, illogical, abrasive, and a bit irritating–perfect for a play about TV. Steve Basswood, a young baseball hero, is about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame when a well-pitched question at a televised press conference turns him from media star to media bum. The question deals with minor financial improprieties, but the muckraking on-scene reporter for the 5 Very Live TV show is soon reporting “rumors of allegations” concerning child sodomy, male prostitution, and drugs. The scandal grows, hyped by viewer telephone polls (“It’s not scientific, but who cares?”), until Basswood can no longer take it. His suicide, of course, makes for great TV.
VanMatre’s harsh and heated little play jumps between the news broadcasts and a family watching the show at home. Beer can in one hand and remote control in the other, Dad waits for his sports while Mom ditheringly attempts a conversation; the bite-sized tragedies tossed at them by the plastic-perfect news anchor team are just diversions. Meanwhile, the spirit of Steve Basswood roams unseen through the house–the human element lost in the shuffle.
My memory of 5 Very Live from the Off Off Loop Theater Festival is that it was better played then than now. The ensemble interaction at the recent performance I saw was extremely sloppy–bad enough under any circumstances, but especially in a play whose target is a medium as controlled as TV. A major problem is Scott Kennedy’s sluggish performance as Basswood; he drains the character of any emotional impact that might make us feel sympathy for him or anger at his mistreatment. Yet Kennedy’s dullness has a certain fittingness to it; like the maligned celebrities he represents, he’s a pathetically passive participant in his own crucifixion. Of the other actors, the cleanest work comes from Gary Albert and Julie Ganey as the whorishly hypocritical newscasters.
Playwright VanMatre stars in the program’s opening piece, The Birthday Present, by Charlie Schulman. Despite some strained efforts to update the play with references to Barbara Bush and her dog Millie, this is clearly a product of the early Reagan years, with references to an attempted presidential assassination and the Berlin Wall. Its premise recalls the inane fare so prevalent on movie and TV screens in the early 1980s: Wallace, a young man whose scientist father conducted secret experiments on him when he was a child, finds that he’s the only man safe from a mysterious worldwide infertility epidemic. When news of his potency hits the airwaves, this shy, sweet nerd quickly becomes the most unlikely media sex symbol since Tiny Tim married Miss Vicky on Johnny Carson’s show.
Schulman’s play is less effective than VanMatre’s, because its focus is less specific. Television news hype is only one of its themes–in fact, its main target isn’t TV but sex and the family. Starting out as a little boy in short pants who’s been stood up at his own birthday party, Wallace grows up deserted by his father and dominated by the emotional violence of women–his mercenary-soldier sister and his selfish wife, both of whom care not a fig for Wallace until his fertility makes him rich and famous.
The Birthday Present is better played by its cast than 5 Very Live, if only because its crudely boisterous script can better stand the sloppily exuberant style of this brash young ensemble. Under Todd Schmidt’s direction, David VanMatre plays Wallace with a sly secretiveness that suggests there’s more to the script than there is. As an actor and as a playwright, he’s a promising talent given an effective showcase.