With a win like this one, who needs defeat? The Riot Group’s “Victory at the Dirt Palace” takes a couple of choice whacks at the war of attrition between competing newscasters, using the NBC/ABC rivalry as a template right down to the dueling John Williams/Robert Israel theme songs. A little more surprisingly, playwright Adriano Shaplin has heavily salted his quick-witted script with lines and themes from “King Lear.” It’s a startling contrast — mostly, it illustrates how trivial the play’s pompous windbags actually are — but Shaplin and director Whit MacLaughlin make the gonzo satire work in its own weird way.
“Blow, winds, crack your cheeks! Rage, blow, you cataracts and hurricanes!” bellows TV patriarch James Mann (Paul Schnabel) during a weather forecast. This should sound familiar both to English majors and news junkies, given the increasing propensity on both sides of the political divide for noisy bombast. How hard is it to imagine Bill O’Reilly’s daughter betraying him to work for MSNBC? Or Keith Olbermann’s girlfriend defecting to Fox News?
And that’s the kind of thing “Victory at the Dirt Palace” lives to mock. Mann’s daughter, K. (Stephanie Viola), now anchors her own program opposite dad’s venerable nightly newscast, scoring points off him in the ratings war when she can, and taking her lumps stoically when she can’t.
Designer Maria Shaplin has planted the SAL (K.’s network) studio right next to an identical setup for VON (her dad’s corporate home). Each anchor has a toady (or “executive producer”) — Andrew (Drew Friedman) for James, Spence (the playwright himself) for K. — and each one has the same disease: some kind of cognitive disorder that disrupts “object permanence,” the ability to perceive the existence of things no longer visible.
In a word, K. and her dad are basically the same spoiled, short-sighted person. Obviously, things are going to go terribly wrong for them.
And they do, in spectacular fashion. Shaplin’s terse writing and MacLaughlin’s energetic directing give the play not just momentum but velocity as it heads toward a specific target. On the way, we get lampoons of everything from media coverage (the National Review thinks both commentators are too liberal; the Nation, too conservative) to cheesy-scary story voiceovers that even K. feels the need to question (“What am I, Vincent Price?”).
In fact, the goofy news segs may be the best part; at one point, James introduces an interview with, “Drugs. Companies make them. You take them. Who’s complaining? The answer is … some people.”
The play shoots forward at such an impressive clip that we feel it all the more when it slows down just short of the finish line, tripping over a couple of sprawling monologues that cross-pollinate “Lear” with some inscrutable musings of Shaplin’s own. Then there’s the ending, which rings a little hollow and seems to come more from a need to finish than from anywhere else. Still, the show’s actors are all working as a unit, with no one hogging the stage or shrinking into the background. The Riot Group displays a tightness and focus few companies can boast.