C.J. Hopkins’ play “screwmachine/eyecandy” makes more sense if you know its original copyright was granted in 1994. Despite some updated references to the Twin Towers, this gory bit of satire — in which an average suburban couple competes in a sadistic gameshow — bears the stamp of last decade’s irony. And it’s easy to imagine how, back then, the smiling violence might have felt like part of a zeitgeist that shared “Natural Born Killers” and “Scream.” Now, however, the play’s gimmicks are worn, meaning they can’t distract from the writer’s slipshod thinking.
To their credit, the cast and creatives commit to Hopkins’ narrow aesthetic. The production provides a clear vision of the play, even if that means exposing how quickly its ideas can be grasped.
For instance, Simon Holdsworth’s gameshow set — designed to resemble a cartoon living room — tells us just what world we inhabit. The players’ podiums are shaped like pastel-colored easy chairs, tilted at angles just as awkward as the oversized floor lamps in the background. What else could this be, really, but a distorted suburban funhouse? The hyper-cheeriness points directly to something rotten underneath.
The endless canned laughter points in the same direction. By now, it’s a trope to ironically use a laugh track over disturbing moments, short-handing the playwright’s belief we are desensitized rubes who will unthinkingly accept anything presented as entertainment. Particularly invasive here, the sound instructs us when to be horrified by the racist, violent or utterly random comments made by Big Bob (Dave Calvitto), the manic gameshow host.
And, of course, the contestants (played with bug-eyed enthusiasm by Bill Coelius and Nancy Walsh) laugh right along. The gameshow has no rules, and the only way they can win some of the money in Big Bob’s hands is by going along with whatever he says. If they express any qualms with what they hear, they get assaulted. That violent twist is beyond predictable, as is the contestants’ continuing interest in winning prizes, even as they bleed.
For those who don’t see we’re all greedy, desensitized robots, Hopkins eventually has Bob deliver the play’s sermon directly to the audience. In the background, a drag queen named Vera (James Cleveland) beats a contestant unconscious, but Bob smiles on. “You got your money, you got your consumer items,” he says, “What more could you possibly want?”
Sophisticated storytelling might be a nice start. Although he apes the themes of everything from “1984” to “Series 7,” a film about a murderous reality show, Hopkins delivers his dogmatism with heavy-handed arrogance. Bob’s language becomes increasingly blunt as he blames viewers for viewing suffering as a game, as though no one has told us that before.
But artists have been implicating auds for years. Telling us we’re voyeurs or that we’ll do anything to acquire more stuff is safe and predictable: There’s nothing insightful about simply identifying this problem. The meaningful mission now is figuring out what to do about it.