In 1961, when Newton Minnow declared television “a vast wasteland,” he was evaluating a medium that, in a little over a decade of widespread commercial use, had fully embraced the objective of preying on human insecurities to sell product. Since then, social critics have continued to give the ubiquitous Cyclops a good drubbing, though sadly to no avail — as we see in Theresa Rebeck and Daniel Fish’s “Our House.”
Rebeck, who wrote the play, and Fish, who helmed, together have conceived a compelling mix of form and content, and except for a few blocking issues in the Denver Center Theater Company’s challenging, in-the-round Space Theater, they have staged an efficient, vitriolic commentary on the transformation of news into entertainment and the general surfeit of rubbish filling the hours on hundreds of channels.
Ultimately, however, their principal characters fall short of believability, their analysis lacks cogency, and their satire only amuses during the short segments when the lensed close-ups of stage action are viewed on the three TVs that serve as props. On the stage, surrounded by an audience, the action is too familiar a real-life landscape to tickle or shock.
Wes (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a network executive, is a profane and money-worshipping sexist who has it all: A rising Neilson rating and afternoon sessions on his office couch with his on-air star, Jennifer (Molly Ward). Mastrogiorgio’s smarmy, no-holds-barred characterization makes the most of the material, but Wes is too one-dimensional to be credible.
“Staying informed in America is optional,” Wes tells us. “The news is not free.” But without context, these board room saws take on the mantle of immutable societal principles, rather than the short-sighted rationalizations of homo economus, which they are.
Even when Rebeck attempts to give “cover girl” Jennifer more depth in the climactic scene, the character’s intellectual posturing seems a contrivance to provide social commentary, not an aspect of the anchorwoman’s previously hidden mental life. Ward makes Jennifer as cohesive as possible, breezily moving from vacuous stand-ups to fashion tantrums, but the character’s complaints about the quality of news writers don’t make her a thinker.
Lack of foreshadowing and coherent motivation also undermines the dramatic effectiveness of Merv (Rob Campbell), an unemployed grad school drop-out, who first degenerates from a selfish couch potato into a murderer, and then evolves into a polished social critic ready to do battle with the now unlikely Jennifer.
While Rebeck and Fish get it right that the FCC has violated the public’s trust by selling the airwaves to conscienceless profiteers, their ascription that dynamics of the television medium are the central source of violence and disintegration in our culture, rather than the intrinsic demands of the political economy, indicates they have missed the point of Minnow’s famous speech to the NAB: “If you want to stay on as trustees, you must deliver a decent return to the public — not only to your stockholders.”
“Our House” will run concurrent with two other upcoming DCTC world premieres — Octavio Solis’ “Lydia” and Eric Schmiedl’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s popular novel, “Plainsong” — together headlining the company’s third annual Colorado New Play Summit, Feb. 14-16.