Is the instinct to applaud maniacally and shriek gleefully at the slightest encouragement innate or learned? Is it worth enduring the possibility of public humiliation to win a new DVD player? Such are the questions brought to mind by “Game Show,” an Off Broadway play that is certainly not guilty of false advertising. Contestants — frighteningly willing recruits from the audience, actually — do in fact compete for prizes under the glare of studio lighting at this genial, well produced and calorie-free slice of interactive entertainment.
Written by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton, and directed with winking gusto by Mark Waldrop (“When Pigs Fly”), “Game Show” re-creates the experience of attending a live taping at a generic quiz show. James Youmans’ shiny set perfectly captures the bright, oddly mesmerizing aesthetic unique to the gameshow genre. Video cameras ably operated by a pair of actors follow the action both on the set and in the seats, transmitting it to monitors in view of the audience. All interested parties thus have the choice of watching in a more familiar format the events that are actually occurring in front of them.
The production’s small cast consists of this faux gameshow’s staff. Jeb Brown, chiseled of jaw and unctuous of manner, is well cast as the fellow who warms up the studio audience (us) with glib chat and worn jokes. Cheryl Stern is all sharp edges as producer Ellen, whose sexual and professional machinations provide the gist of the backstage story’s flimsy plot.
Michael McGrath is remarkably convincing as the show’s host, Troy Richards. Bantering with quick-witted, sincere insincerity as if he’s been doing it all his life, McGrath seems to have been plucked from the same eerie garden that grows species such as Trebek and Philbin (he’s attired in the Regis monochrome, natch). Most impressive of all is the effective — and very smart — performance of Dana Lynn Mauro in a supporting role.
“Game Show’s” big problem is that the thin script the actors are performing in between “rounds” of the game is simply no match for the entertaining spectacle of watching folks like us try to win that DVD player by competing to answer a series of fairly mild trivia questions. (Why, it could be you, if you gesticulate violently and ingratiatingly enough!)
At the performance reviewed, the young-skewing audience seemed far more engaged watching its own members desperately punching their buzzers with furrowed brows than it was by the well acted but insufficiently inventive spoofing Finn and Walton have cooked up for the performers.
In short, “Game Show” may not be particularly involving as a play, but as a gameshow it’s the next best thing to being there.