Michael Elyanow’s TV parody “The Idiot Box” focuses on a group of somewhat familiar friends, a microcosm for the macrocosm of 50-plus years of TV comedy tropes we all know by heart. The play neatly defines the parameters of the sitcom world, from the “wacky mix-ups” that would never occur in life to the almost metronomic recurrence of a laugh track, and then cleverly explodes them. The Open Fist Theater Company’s West Coast premiere production of this witty, audacious work succeeds brilliantly with Jeremy B. Cohen’s tight direction and an excellent cast.
Six friends share a very large apartment in the Big Apple, and although truly odd coincidences and misunderstandings bedevil them every day, they are essentially very happy. Fiona (Tisha Terrasini-Banker) is a ditzy kook, Mark (Kelly Van Kirk) a mischievous paramedic, Chloe (Anna Khaja) a sympathetic caregiver, Billy (Dominic Spillane) a horndog model, Stephanie (Amanda Weier) a romance novelist and her husband, Connor (David Castellani), the joker of the group.
Everything is hijinx as usual until one day Chloe sees a performance of “The Three Sisters” and meets the nonsitcom person Omar (Joe Holt); with that, real life begins to intrude upon this self-contained world. The upbeat scene-change music goes away; Billy’s new conquest, Ramona, turns out to be Raymond (Conor Lane); Fiona’s boyfriend, Harvey (Rod Sweitzer), gets called up to serve in Iraq; and single-episode characters like Aussie “dog-shusherer” Veronica (Corena Chase) stick around longer than expected as Mark’s perfect world implodes.
Khaja brings a sense of genuine emotion to Chloe, and the scene in which she literally deconstructs her reality is grounded by her rising anger at having been deceived for so long. Holt adds a low-key charm to the proceedings as the one “real” character, and Chase is appropriately vivacious as a one-note-joke comedy character that runs smack into drama when she’s attacked by one of the “friends.”
Terrasini-Banker is perfect as Fiona, and the moment in which she reveals her character’s true intelligence and drops the ditzy act and voice is hilarious. Weier and Castellani are fine but struggle with one of the less compelling side plots, and Van Kirk is good but weighed down in a role that delivers a lot of exposition to wrap up the plot and an ineffective 9/11-based motivation. Spillane is touchingly believable as the ladies’ man tentatively exploring a homosexual relationship. Lane and Sweitzer are both strong in smaller roles.
Cohen stages the show with propulsive energy but doesn’t neglect the subtle moments, such as the confused look on Connor’s face when his punchlines aren’t followed by the obnoxious laugh track. Donna Marquet’s expansive set looks like the real sitcom deal, and Lindsay Jones’ original music accurately re-creates the bullying enforced glee of TV comedy scene-change segues.