Hollywood Gaming

By bringing the audience along for the ride, Game Show rides a rising wave

Most plays begin when the actors first appear, but Hollywood Playhouse's Game Show: The Comedy You Play starts the moment you walk into the 200-seat theater. David K. Sherman has done an excellent job of setting the stage for this entertaining blend of interactivity and comedy. The brightly colored podiums of Sherman's retro set design bring to mind the first quiz shows of the '50s. Freestanding camera equipment and a table with phones and clipboards designate the producer's domain. On a more modern note, video monitors and applause boxes are elevated above the stage.

Audience members are chosen randomly to participate in the spectacle, which is modeled loosely on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, as well as the sink-or-swim principle of productions such as Survivor. Theatergoers compete for real prizes, from T-shirts to a new color television.

The play's roots are in America's long-standing passion for television, which largely began with the advent of game shows. One of the first was The $64,000 Question, which CBS premiered June 7, 1955. Just as the original game shows of the '50s were plagued by scandals associated with cheating and other unfair practices, this modern-day Game Showalso exposes a corrupt side of one of America's favorite pastimes. When the cameras stop rolling, a section of Sherman's innovative set revolves to reveal the office of Ellen (Patti Gardner), the capable producer, and thus sets in motion the play's plot. The cast, which also includes dazzling host Troy Richards (Stephen G. Anthony), is engaged in a battle of sex, manipulation, and double-crossing corporate politics. Despite the predictability of the scenario, this behind-the-scenes drama is engaging because of the contrast between events on- and off-stage. In the theater the TV game show quickly loses its high-tech gloss and morphs into a hilarious parody.

The play unfolds in three rounds and semifinal and final matches. Contestants' improvisations are definitely the funniest parts of the show. Cowriters Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton constructed a structurally sophisticated script that layers spontaneity with mystery to keep the plot interesting. The 105-minute production breezes by without intermission. The writers padded the improvisational aspects of the play with the kind of material that almost always ensures success. During the show's initial off-Broadway run, producers and writers eliminated hundreds of possible quiz questions to find the ones that elicited the funniest responses. Examples:

What kind of nut is used to make marzipan?

What two moons orbit Uranus? (One rebellious contestant answered, "Only you would know.")

Game Show is quite different than most other interactive-theater productions, which are strictly driven by audience participation. In shows like Shear Madness and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, the participation of the entire audience in activities like guessing whodunit and deciding outcomes is imperative. If an audience member doesn't become involved in such a play, it offers nothing for him or her. But by having members of the audience physically enter the realm of the actors (the stage), this show's producers take another tack at assuring that all audience members care about the outcome.

Rogow does an excellent job of orchestrating the play's more than 200 video and sound cues, which create the indispensable verisimilitude of a studio audience. One prime example is at the beginning when the warm-up guy, Steve Fox (Andrew Fiacco), chooses an audience member to announce Troy's arrival. A flurry of countdowns creates the excitement of a real TV-show taping, and video monitors allow audience members to see themselves on-screen constantly.

Director Andy Rogow smartly has the main characters play their very different roles full-tilt. Anthony's Troy is undeniably the genius behind the canned laughter. He exudes charm with his slicked-back hair, tailored suit, and quick wit. As he cruises the theater to select participants, he passes notes to cute girls in the audience and uses every opportunity to make wisecracks. "Karla spells her name with a K. Let's give her a hand for that," he urged. The actor has mastered the key to improvisation; he doesn't censor himself, and while most of his lines are momentarily funny throwaways, they are nonetheless hilarious. He also has a talent for finding a range of sarcastic comments that appeal to a wide variety of age groups -- from reserved older contestants to smart-aleck adolescents. Anthony is so quick on his feet that he can come up with a comment for just about any situation. At a recent performance, when two finalists happened to be a married couple, Troy pointed out: "One of you is going home with a new color television set, and the other is going home with the someone who just won a new color television set."

Gardner gives a thoroughly engaging and convincing performance as the show's scheming producer. Ellen turns out to be more than your typical sell-your-soul-at-any-price corporate type. She is a mastermind who uses her intelligence, contacts, and sexuality to manipulate the men in her life. Because she never betrays her character's tough center, Gardner manages to strike a balance between being appealing and despicable.

Jose Cabrera and Shawn Kilgore play cameramen who act as foil characters by planting a digital camera in the host's dressing room, thus adding a couple of twists to the plot. These two roles are the most awkward because the two cameramen seem inappropriately placed at center stage. Nevertheless, as the play moves along, their presence fits well into the overall composition.

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