We all knew it was coming. We saw it in the debate over closed-circuit TV executions. From the original cheeky British home makeovers to the consummately American "Survivor" series, there was only one place all this could go: The insatiable voyeurism of consumer culture would never be satisfied until it had witnessed the ultimate reality TV event -- a staged death. After all, as National Geographic put it in 1997 in its two-part glorification of Imperial Rome, "Their story is our story," and didn't they feed Christians to the lions for amusement?
We all knew it was coming. We saw it in the debate over closed-circuit TV executions. From the original cheeky British home makeovers to the consummately American “Survivor” series, there was only one place all this could go: The insatiable voyeurism of consumer culture would never be satisfied until it had witnessed the ultimate reality TV event — a staged death. After all, as National Geographic put it in 1997 in its two-part glorification of Imperial Rome, “Their story is our story,” and didn’t they feed Christians to the lions for amusement?
Thankfully, we’ve been saved, if only temporarily, from this disgraceful exhibition by up-and-coming playwright Eric Coble (“Bright Ideas”), who has preempted the network vultures with “The Dead Guy,” having its world premiere at Denver’s Curious Theater Company.
On a pastel-tinged backlit set, framed by six live television monitors fed by a wireless transmitter from a videographer’s hand-held camera, Eldon Phelps (Todd Webster), a nobody from Leadville, USA, hears the pitch from Gina Yaweth (Elizabeth Rainer), a ruthless producer with a track record in a genre defined by the depths to which participants will sink for a buck.
As the barroom seduction begins, Eldon deludes himself into thinking Gina’s interest in him is romantic, and scrambles to defuse the rumors about his hapless life that he hopes she hasn’t heard. But Gina’s way ahead of him: Eldon is the consummate loser she’s been looking for, and she knows exactly how to turn the screws.
“What is it that you want to do with your life?” she asks, knowing full well that a new pickup truck and reconciliation with his girlfriend are as far as Eldon’s vision of the future extends.
When she offers him $1 million on the condition that he spend it in a week, he’s skeptical; but after she lays out her broadcasting credentials, he jumps at the bait. Only then is the hook revealed: “At the end of the week, you die!”
Jolted into fight-or-flight syndrome, Eldon tries to extricate himself, but Gina reels him in with hard doses of reality. “You’re at a dead end,” she tells him. “It’s not going to get any better than this. You can go out as a supernova!”
Forced to weigh the sorry state of his life against the glory of notoriety, Eldon leaps into Gina’s net. “It has to be next week,” she says, “while we’re still in sweeps.”
The countdown begins, and helmer Chip Walton sets a snappy pace with his versatile cast.
Though nobility is out of reach, company regular Webster, as Eldon, brings everyman qualities to a small-town schlub. The hapless comedic hero’s sense of impending doom leads him on a bipolar quest from unbridled consumption of cars and jewelry to charitable options, from romantic rejection to Disneyland hookers, and through familial outrage to insider opportunism.
Switching from Hollywood slang to the false intimacy and pseudo-credible tones of British tabloid journalism as soon as the end of a commercial is signaled, Rainer sets a duplicitous standard for Gina worthy of Iago. She encourages Eldon to make something of himself, in the little time he has left, while rapturously following the promising Nielsen overnight ratings and the career-enhancing possibilities of Variety headlines that blare, “Dead Guy Buries Competition Alive.”
Only Eldon’s dumpy mom, Roberta (Dee Covington), his half-wit brother, Virgil (Ed Cord), and ex-girlfriend Christy (Jessica Austgen) seem capable of raising objections, hoping to avoid the shame-by-association they face from paparazzi who have turned their Rocky Mountain backwater into the Coliseum, surrounded by news helicopters, video transmission trucks, souvenir vendors, cheerleaders and protesters.
But like the decadent Romans who suffered from lead-poisoned aqueducts, each of Eldon’s closest Leadville relations fall victim to their own mad desires. After initially declaring her disgust at Eldon’s plan, Covington, as the mom, does such a stunning turnabout — after considering the proceeds she could reap from a self-help book for other mothers suffering the same woeful fate — even Donald Trump would applaud.
As the title cards on the monitors count down the week, marking off the daily video verite segments, Coble builds on the natural drama of a draining hourglass by contrasting Eldon’s increasingly poignant realizations about the value and beauty of life with Gina’s death-row narration — describing the means by which our money-grubber of the week will die.
The moment of truth finally arrives with the tabulation of the audience’s preferences for the manner in which they wish to see Eldon die. In an inspired script change arrived at collaboratively with the company, Coble delivers his coup de grace, leaving no doubt about the price we pay for serving the wrong master.