“Night and Her Stars,” Richard Greenberg’s look at the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, is a dense, ambitious, literate and ultimately unsatisfying drama. Scene for scene, it is hard to fault his often brilliant dialogue, but ultimately he fails to wring much emotional or intellectual weight out of this familiar tale.
Greenberg, known for his play “Eastern Standard,” sticks closely to the facts. Indeed, he does so to a fault, spending much of this nearly three-hour work on the mechanics of the investigation rather than providing in-depth looks at the characters or interesting speculation as to the incident’s larger meaning.
The key figures are Daniel Enright (Peter Frechette), executive producer of the quiz show “21”; Herbert Stempel (Patrick Breen), the show’s first contestant to be given the answers in advance, and the one who turned to the authorities; and Charles Van Doren (Dylan Baker), the most famous of the coached contestants, who parlayed his winning streak into celebrity status until finally admitting that the fix had been in.
Who are these three men, and how did they let themselves get involved in a scheme that, in retrospect, was destined to crash and burn? Greenberg provides only superficial speculation on those key questions.
The playwright correctly fingers Enright as an important figure in television history — the first man to deliberately confuse fiction and fact. Given the larger implications of that action, he clearly deserves his own play.
Director David Warren gives this world premiere a smooth and sometimes stunning production, with the acting at a consistently high level. Breen is never less than fascinating as the nerdy intellectual Stempel, while Kaufman’s aw-shucks approach is just right for Van Doren.
Frechette plays Enright like a cunning boa constrictor; he wraps himself around his victims with such grace and style that they have no idea what is happening to them.
The outstanding scenic design, by Cliff Faulkner and Wendall K. Harrington, consists largely of well-chosen, evocative images from the 1950s projected onto a large screen behind the actors. Foreground through most of the play is — of course — a television set, with rabbit ears perched pertly on top.