Over the last 40-plus years the TV quizshow scandals of the 1950s have been chronicled from tabloid to bigscreen (“Quiz Show”) but playwright Richard Greenberg has managed to mine a few gems from this unsavory saga with his satirical tale of a modern Faust who doesn’t sell his entire soul, “just a little piece of it.” Despite an uneven ensemble and the often awkward staging of Steve Rudnick, the spiritual seduction of insecure intellectual Charles Van Doren (Dana Ashbrook) by the hypnotically manipulative coaxing of television producer Dan Enright (Bob Neches) unfolds as a captivating cautionary tale, foretelling of the amoral cynicism that permeates today’s culture.
Greenberg concentrates on the interworkings of Enright’s Machiavellian influence over Van Doren and Herb Stempel (David Keats), a geekish misfit with a photographic memory who was the reigning champion of the popular but rigged “Twenty-One” gameshow until his preplanned dethroning by Van Doren.
Director Rudnick is on the mark with his well-balanced succession of seductions and rejections among this triumvirate of lost souls. He is not as successful when the focus shifts to the often clumsily staged backroom maneuverings of the network execs, the undernourished gameshow appearances moderated by Jack Barry (Gus Buktenica), Stempel’s bizarre and undefined confrontations with his wife, Toby (Erin Underwood), and the woefully unfocused final scene reconciliation between Charles and his father, the poet-scholar Mark Van Doren (Walter Beery).
The performances of Neches, Ashbrook and Keats are outstanding. Neches’ Enright is a gentle-voiced cobra who actually makes plausible such incongruous utterances as “We have done nothing wrong and we have done it in utmost secrecy.” He exudes a deep-seated reverence for his television show that makes credible his unflinching destruction of the hapless duo of Van Doren and Stempel.
Ashbrook (“Twin Peaks”) is appealingly erudite and fragile as the Columbia U professor who is driven into the unsavory gameshow spotlight not by a desire for wealth but by a need to make his own mark within his monumentally accomplished extended family. Keats’ Stempel offers an awe-inspiring portrayal of a life-anguished ineffectual nebbish who is incapable of profiting from his incredible mental gifts.
Other performances of note include Stephen Liska’s adroit second-banana outing as Enright’s cohort in crime Al Freedman and Buktenica’s double portrayals as not-too-bright, self-involved Barry and the government’s understated but persistent investigator who interrogates Van Doren.
Not faring as well are Joel Stoffer’s caricature of hipster reporter Warren Corso and Eric Tunney’s equally inappropriate turn as pseudo-intellectual commentator Spats O’Brien. And Underwood never establishes herself within the persona of the long-suffering Toby.
The production is facilitated by Suzan Fellman’s brilliant all-white stage, transparent furniture and a clear plastic television set whose glowing cathode tubes cast a prophetic dominance over the onstage action. Complementing the proceedings are the lighting, costume and sound designs of Keith Morrison, Talia Jones and James Intveld, respectively.