Dumb Show is the "small, light show" Joe Penhall wanted to write after the "big, dark show" Blue/Orange. The Promethean Theatre has always been better at darkness, so its successful Blue/Orange four years ago was no surprise. I am delighted to announce, however, that it has now dispatched both Penhall joints brilliantly.
I originally wrote masterfully instead of brilliantly, but masterful is the wrong word for something as fast and crazy as Dumb Show — an excellent play with a dubious premise, for which Promethean's three actors compensate with a balls-to-the-wall manic energy that leaves an audience with little time for critical thought. In the play's first moment, a man and woman we will come to know as Greg and Liz nervously prepare to answer a knocking at the door of a plush, chocolate-brown hotel room, with their eyes fairly bugging out of their sockets and their hands all atwitch, as though they were standing in an electrified puddle. From then until the curtain drops, these actors seem interested, first of all, in shocking, titillating, and amusing themselves. Doing the same to the audience seems like a happy side effect.
The man doing the knocking is Barry (Gregg Weiner), a television star who's visiting Greg and Liz (David Sirlois and Promethean's own executive artistic director, Deborah L. Sherman) to see about doing some banking. Which doesn't mean Greg and Liz are bankers. They're not. Barry just thinks they are. (And yes, I'm saying too much about what ought to be a very shocking revelation, but it's impossible to speak about this play for 1,000 words without doing so: The revelation comes about halfway through act one, and only afterward does the play's real subject matter become clear.) In fact, Greg and Liz are tabloid journalists. They have tricked Barry into coming here, getting drunk, and revealing seamy details about his life, marriage, and chemical habits. They hope to use these confessions as leverage to persuade Barry to give them a tell-all interview that will earn them a shit-ton of money and considerable renown.
This is the aforementioned dubious premise, which, to be fair, playwright Penhall seems to acknowledge by having Barry rave about entrapment every few minutes. Which doesn't exactly explain why it's not entrapment. When we New Times people interview somebody, we're not even allowed to mislead them as to the nature of the story we're writing. Failing to mention that we're writing a story at all would get us fired, sued, and probably beaten up by our scandalized colleagues.
Still, though: This is set in England, where in the early '90s, a tabloid had no reservations about claiming that Elton John liked to slit his puppies' vocal cords. Still, though: That same tabloid had its pants sued off. So Penhall's got a credibility problem.
Do yourself a favor and ignore it. This is easy, especially once Barry finds out about the subterfuge. Weiner has received every plaudit a South Florida actor can garner in the past year — a Carbonell, drooling reviews, an in-print comparison to Zac Efron — but he's never deserved them more than he does now. As Barry, he freaks, he fumes, his eyes become all big and red and scary, and his very skeleton seems to grow into a vast hulking hunk of hot-breathed rage as he bears down on little David Sirlois (who isn't really little but sure looks that way next to the molten Weinenator). He's just a gigantic, coked-up monster. Yet... he's likable.
He's likable primarily because of the contrast he cuts with his fellow characters. Greg and Liz speak exclusively in banalities. In their world, people are given a "new lease on life" or "a second chance"; people "have their ups and downs," and the deceased "look down from above." (Clearly, Greg and Liz work for the dailies.) Barry, meanwhile, speaks like a real person. Describing the innate human need to imbibe intoxicants, he says, "Humans need alternate reality like whales need a blowhole." Or, about fucking: "Sex is God's way of saying 'sorry.' " These observances, coupled with Weiner's fireball histrionics, make Barry into a Shakespearean tragedy loosed on a world of cartoons.
I don't say this to besmirch the other actors — they're supposed to be cartoons. (Sirlois in particular, when unmasked as a villain, looks about ready to drop an Acme anvil on Weiner's head.) The subject of Penhall's critique is the popular media's failure of imagination and how it dries out our human capacity for empathy. Sherman, as Liz, really looks like she's trying to be solicitous when she asks Weiner if he thinks a deceased loved one is "looking down from above." But there is a peculiar genius to Sherman's acting in that moment and in so many others: She looks like she's groping for even these obvious words, and after saying them, she looks unsatisfied. It's as though she knows there's something more profound she means to say but isn't sure there's any language to express it. (This scene is eerily similar to a scene in the movie American Psycho, when Chloe Sevigny flirts with Christian Bale as Bale selects a weapon with which to dispatch her. I wouldn't be surprised if Sherman used it as a model.)
We'll be hearing more of Penhall's name this fall, when his movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road hits theaters. The Road follows a man and a boy through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which there are no plants, no animals, and very few people and in which the only available food are those canned goods stored in unpillaged basements. At least in book form, it is a work without clichés: In a world where nothing exists, there are no subjects to which a cliché might affix itself. If Penhall can pack half as much feeling into The Road's silence as he can into Dumb Show's banalities, it will be something to see.