If Neil Postman is in hell, he’s probably reliving the events of “A New Television Arrives, Finally.” Kevin Mandel’s enjoyable (if slight) new play lapses into inscrutability on occasion, but its appalling central image of an abusive TV set mistreating its hypnotized viewers is compelling enough to nicely fill out this funny, upsetting piece’s trim 90-minute running time.
“I hate television,” said Orson Welles. “I hate it as much as I hate peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” Ever thus to Man (played by Ari Vigoda in Monday’s show) and Woman (Kate Russell), a nice-seeming, average Joe and Josephine who have just brought a new television into their home.
It’s a sporty-looking device — in fact, it looks a lot like Daytime Emmy winner Tom Pelphrey (alternating in the role with Victor Villar-Hauser), whose work on “Guiding Light” only further ironizes his performance as the sleazy appliance that none of us seem to be able to do without.
Pelphrey, resplendent in a dark red suit, unbuttoned blue striped shirt, and mirrored shades, looks like the kind of person you’d avoid if you were purchasing a mattress or a used car. This impression is reenforced by Television’s misbehavior — after the hapless Man has placed him on a TV table across from the couch, he begins to act up, dropping things out of the window and tearing up magazines for no reason.
Pelphrey’s performance is appropriately entrancing. His part is full of hard-to-chew lines and abstract monologues, but he barrels through each challenge with a laudable mania. Kevin Kittle has staged this very talky piece with a precision of movement that keeps us invested. “A New Television Arrives, Finally” is always going somewhere, though we never are quite sure where.
Things aren’t all bad between the Man and his boob tube, for a while. Television makes him and his fiancee happy, briefly, with a monologue on the wonderful things that are coming (“Brought to you by love!”). As the play goes on, though, it becomes apparent that the television isn’t just a low-res nuisance. It’s hi-def, widescreen evil, suggesting horrible sexual perversions to Man and Woman and threatening them with violence.
To be honest, though, Man and Woman aren’t all that great, either. Man is totally inarticulate, and Woman has no ideas of her own. They’re on full-brain autopilot, and just slightly too dumb to understand that they’re unhappy. Mandel passes a harsh judgment on them (and by extension, his audience), but it doesn’t feel unwarranted.
It does feel a little dated, though. “A New Television Arrives, Finally” is certainly a striking indictment of a hyper-entertained culture, but it isn’t a very thorough one. Where are the more modern members of the entertainment pantheon? If the soul of a TV set looks like an oversexed barfly, the iPhone must look like a monster out of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
The play ends with a whimper when Television abandons his charges. It doesn’t make much sense, given the context — shouldn’t the TV stay with them forever, torturing them with profound-sounding inanities?
Still, Television’s final absurd cries of “Love! Love!” drive Mandel’s point home, especially when juxtaposed with the equally meaningless sound of a car alarm. It’s a tale told by the idiot box, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.