Review: ‘Dumb Show’

Brit scripter Joe Penhall creates the proper atmosphere for the comeuppance of fading but still popular TV comic Barry (Michael McShane). But he fails to develop the premise beyond the superfluous moralizing heaped on Barry after he's been entrapped by a pair of bottom-feeding undercover investigative reporters. An outstanding ensemble offers a finely layered portrait of the potentially lethal consequences of fame.</B>

Brit scripter Joe Penhall creates the proper atmosphere for the comeuppance of fading but still popular TV comic Barry (Michael McShane). But he fails to develop the premise beyond the superfluous moralizing heaped on Barry after he’s been entrapped by a pair of bottom-feeding undercover investigative reporters. An outstanding ensemble offers a finely layered portrait of the potentially lethal consequences of fame.

Penhall gets things off to a promising start in this exploration of the conflicted agendas of tabloid journalists and the celebrities they puff up. Set in a London five-star hotel room (impressively realized by Angela Balogh Calin), the action focuses on the fawning attention lavished on a doubting Barry by fast-talking John (John Rafter Lee) and his comely sidekick, Jane (Heidi Dippold), two supposed investment bankers who want to bring the TV star into their financially rewarding corporate fold.

Interplay between the banking duo is compelling, as John’s insinuations of undeclared money are warmly echoed by miniskirted Jane, who manages to visually seduce the now very interested TV star.

By the second scene, alone with Jane in the hotel room, McShane’s Barry reveals himself as an insecure, life-burdened hack who has anesthetized himself over the years with copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and sex.

Penhall creates a deceptive lull before the impending storm, as Dippold’s Jane appears to become less corporate and more vulnerable to the now relaxed TV star, who has taken an active interest in the contents of the room’s minibar. The interaction between the two escalates quite believably as the inebriated Barry is manipulated into offering drugs to Jane and then makes a feeble effort to get physical with her.

Turns out the phony bankers are actually Greg and Liz, tabloid journalists who have secretly videotaped Barry’s indiscretions with the reporter formerly known as Jane. They offer to conceal the incriminating evidence for an exclusive tell-all interview with the now thoroughly distraught comic.

Once the sting has been revealed, Penhall has nowhere to go other than to thrust this now-combative trio into rounds of recriminative point-making. He relentlessly underscores his thesis that tabloid journalists validate their sleazy mandate by cloaking themselves in moral indignation at the actions of the celebs they persistently pursue.

The scripter repeatedly regurgitates his notion that those who feed on the lives of celebrities are part of a corrupt symbiotic culture. What Penhall doesn’t explore is the real conflict between necessary investigation of newsworthy personalities and the unwarranted intrusion into their private lives.

Most fully realized character is Barry. As this dissolute fading star, McShane exudes a compelling amalgam of street wit and emotional fragility, housed in a mildly thuggish demeanor. He is matched by Dippold’s Liz, whose constantly shifting reactions to both Barry and Greg project a more complicated personality than is indicated by the script. Lee plays Greg’s reptilian agenda to the hilt. His efforts would be more rewarding if more in-depth development of his character had been explored.

Dumb Show

Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa; 336 seats; $58 top

Production

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Joe Penhall. Directed by David Emmes.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Angela Balogh Calin; lighting, Tom Ruzika; sound, Dennis McCarthy. Opened, reviewed Oct. 1, 2005; runs through Oct. 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Barry - Michael McShane Jane/Liz - Heidi Dippold John/Greg - John Rafter Lee
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