With the newspaper industry on deathwatch and debate over the future of journalism assuming the gravest of tones, a satire on the devaluation of news reporting should have currency, even if it is centered on television. But Theresa Rebeck’s trite, unrelentingly abrasive “Our House” confines itself to easy observations made countless times before. The dumbing-down of TV news, the blurred line between information and entertainment, the cancer on society of reality television, even the parallels between network politics and those cutthroat TV contests — all have been explored with sharper teeth and snappier wit, everywhere from “Network” to the “MILF Island” episode of “30 Rock.”
Rebeck’s extensive experience as a TV writer-producer, notably on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” should uniquely position her to comment on an industry in which profit margins and market share are generally perceived to have shoved aside social responsibility. But the playwright herself has touched on this terrain more insightfully in her 2007 play “The Scene,” which made shrewd digs at the superficiality of television in a similar context of human intelligence in peril.
Plenty of plays manage the tricky balance of creating unlikable characters yet hooking the audience into their self-serving concerns; “Becky Shaw” and “God of Carnage,” just to name two, aced it this past season. But despite the capable cast assembled in Michael Mayer’s aggressively slick production, the folks in “Our House” are insufficiently rooted in either real-life reality or the much-discussed hyper-reality of television to engage our interest, or to tether the satire to some authentic loop of human experience.
Nimbly balanced on Derek McLane’s twin sets — a sterile-chic executive office suite of a major TV network and the homey living room of a shared house in St. Louis — the play spins separate stories from behind the cameras and from viewer-land, then knits them together via a crisis.
Volatile network honcho Wes (Christopher Evan Welch) is intoxicated by sexy automaton Jennifer Ramirez (Morena Baccarin), who reads the morning news but whose journalistic expertise stops short of knowing how to pronounce “Shiite.” Never mind; Wes thinks she’s phenomenal. Dismissing concerns voiced by Stu (Stephen Kunken), head of the terminally unprofitable news division, Wes assigns Jennifer to host “Our House,” in addition to reporting news updates from the communal-living reality show.
(Wes might be married and his affair with Jennifer a clandestine one, but it doesn’t take a TV insider to suspect that Rebeck’s model might be “Early Show” anchor and “Big Brother” host Julie Chen, wife of CBS chief Leslie Moonves.)
Over in St. Louis, the TV addiction of opinionated dropout Merv (Jeremy Strong) is just one source of friction with crunchy-granola housemate Alice (Katie Kreisler), who attempts to evict him for his unpaid back rent, household bills and refusal to pitch in with chores. As mesmerized as he is appalled by reality TV, Merv is particularly smitten with Jennifer. When mounting pressure threatens to force him off the couch, he takes radical action, insisting Jennifer be called in to manage the fallout on national TV.
There’s a central shock element here that causes the two storylines to collide, but it’s a surprise chiefly because the playwright has failed to credibly seed the development anyplace in character or plot. Elsewhere, audiences will be a step or two ahead of the predictable action, particularly the cynical machinations of Wes, who remains a one-note Gordon Gekko of television, regardless of any twitchy idiosyncrasies Welch attempts to bring to the role. (Are we really still making the same old jokes about the suits’ loathing of writers?)
Other key characters are similarly shallow and more inconsistent: Merv’s transition from ranting slacker to deranged media savant (“Night is falling on our planet,” he decrees) is as unconvincing as Jennifer’s sudden opportunistic smarts when she takes control of an explosive situation. As the dryly humorous lone voice of reason (“People need news”), Kunken comes off best, but Stu is denied a dignified exit tirade when Wes ushers in the FCC-flouting era of “news on our terms.”
Making the glibness of the writing even more insulting, Mayer has directed everyone to shout whenever possible. (Strong’s upward-inflected shrillness is especially punishing on the ears.) Rebeck made no secret of her admiration for David Mamet in the homage of “Mauritius,” but when her characters here fire up into hysterical rage a la that playwright’s profane arias, the dialogue sounds more studied than spontaneous.
Rebeck clearly has done time in the television trenches and can speak from experience on the more alarming aspects of smallscreen politics. But if there is genuine anxiety here about the cultural bankruptcy of America and the kind of people television is helping to breed, the point is muted by facile writing and the simplistic obnoxiousness of the characters. What’s more, it’s a decade or two too late for warnings.
The playwright can do better, as can Playwrights Horizons. Plays like “Our House,” and recent presentations from Craig Lucas, Sarah Ruhl and Nicky Silver, suggest the Off Broadway nonprofit should channel its support for contemporary American dramatists into shepherding new talent, not producing second-rate work from established scribes.