Renowned for his cinematic gambits, Steven Soderbergh goes legit with a cut-and-paste script and mixed media in “Tot Mom,” a well-intentioned, well-observed but toothless skewering of American tabloid-TV crime reporting. Taking selected verbatim exchanges from HLN’s “The Nancy Grace Show,” Soderbergh’s text focuses on the 2008 Florida case of Casey Anthony, who belatedly reported the disappearance of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, and has subsequently been charged with the murder of the missing child (the trial is scheduled for April). But catharsis is disturbingly absent in what feels more like a good idea than a finished play. Soderbergh filmed the work during rehearsal and its opening-night perf; a future reworking of this theatrical venture for international auds seems inevitable.
Five video monitors of varying size, adorned with multiple cables, are suspended over a bare stage, with nine chairs aligned at the rear. In the foreground are three swivel chairs. A small swamp, complete with water, reeds and clumps of garbage, separates auds from the stage.
A recorded 911 call from Casey’s mother, Cindy (text helpfully projected on the screens), establishes the odd circumstances of Caylee’s disappearance. Then, prosecuting lawyer-cum-TV anchor Grace (Essie Davis, always projected, never physically present) appears on all screens, staring down the crescent-shaped auditorium. Omnipresent and with an air of omnipotence, Grace barks out cues to a cavalcade of interviewees, repped by nine thesps in multiple roles. These “guests” move downstage and speak only when Grace decrees — and with a synchronized lighting cue illuminating one of the three downstage chairs.
Labeling Casey with the soundbite moniker “Tot Mom,” Grace berates her panel of experts, defense lawyers and her own reporters with equally withering gusto. Deity-like Grace dispenses wisdom, but only to reflect her own power and importance. The interviewees come to resemble mere puppets. The multiple cables that extend from the suspended TV monitors begin to evoke marionette strings.
In long-held closeups (broken up by occasional news blurbs), Davis sustains her impersonation of Grace; her eyes flaring wide, she creates a formidable presence whose wrath is to be feared.
On the whole, the supporting thesps impress with their ability to switch identities, with only minimal props to distinguish the characters. Distaff thesps Zoe Carides, Emma Palmer and Genevieve Hegney prove the most dexterous as they morph from reporters to redneck viewers (pointedly, none of the callers in this version of “The Nancy Grace Show” are men).
But at varying points, all the actors, including Davis, stumble into caricature. While these thesps create familiar likenesses of American TV cliches, their perfs can’t overcome what feels like a certain disdain for the foibles of another culture. (And most Australian audiences had never heard of Grace before this play bowed.)
Still, the play’s failings cannot be blamed solely on the nuances of cultural difference. The play itself encourages scorn and superiority as it drifts beyond grotesque reality into glibness. Intent on targeting powerful news media, Soderbergh duplicates their voracious need to make grim crime “entertaining,” and he likewise seems to forget that a child’s death supplies the play’s structure.
In the final half-hour, other cases intrude on the “Tot Mom” narrative. A transcript from another case is meant to deliver an ironic deathblow, but as the play has already dabbled in parody so long, its satirical intent here is muted. The exclusion of a curtain call comes too late to add much-needed gravitas, leaving Paul Charlier’s somber finale music and the swamp-bound thesps (posing as forensic cops) to shoulder too heavy a burden.