Last night, four very fine actors lit up the stage with some magnificent acting for two hours in John William Schiffbauer’s new play, Live Broadcast. I was riveted to my seat for every second of those two hours.
Even the best actors cannot do that without good material. Schiffbauer, who also takes a role in this production, provides the material – in spades as the saying goes. This is a very, very good play. It has a relatively significant flaw, which, when corrected, I believe gives the play a chance at greatness.
Mr. Schiffbauer set out to write a play about an American culture that “…idolizes celebrity in the worst possible way” and that stifles our public figures from ever speaking with “… any real great sense of honesty or conviction.” No arguments there. But on the way to writing that play, he has written a very powerful work that gets right at the heart of the profound dysfunction and dissonance that is tearing this country apart. And he does so using the unique magic of live theatre – by showing us real people caught up in it.
I would contend that Greek tragedy could only exist in the context of that ancient civilization. Live Broadcast is a modern American tragedy with not one, but four tragic heroes. We are presented with four very strong, authentic characters – people we can relate to, care about, laugh with and hope for. In the end, each of their unique fatal flaws is revealed, and we are left with their helplessness. The real heart-wrenching and tragic beauty of it is in being hit square in the face and the heart with the fact that we cannot hold this stuff at arm’s length and lay the blame elsewhere. In the immortal words of the comic strip character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”
Schiffbauer has an uncanny ear for 2011 human conversation — the way we interrupt and finish one another’s thoughts (accurately or not) and how we sometimes stumble and stutter a little while we catch up with our train of thought or grasp for the right words. I don’t believe I’ve heard dialogue that so closely mirrors reality other than from Aaron Sorkin.
He is also fortunate to have three very accomplished actors join him in bringing his words to life. The strongest parts of the play are the scenes between Schiffbauer’s character, Tom Powers, and his agent, Jane Forge, powerfully portrayed by Marni Penning. Penning handles the rapid-fire dialog easily — finding all the right places to pause, slow down for a moment and then hit the right beat with just the right emphasis. In short, she gives an exquisite performance.
Schiffbauer himself more than holds his own with the three professional performers gathered for this occasion. I’m not at all sure he should give up his role as the play develops and moves on. He fits the part to a “T” and plays it beautifully.
Nick Depinto as the political talk show host, Jack Tatum, and Tonya Beckman Ross, as Congresswoman Madeline Bruce, both deliver very solid, at times exceptional, performances. They are hindered somewhat by what I consider to be the aforementioned flaw in the script.
Tatum has a gift for stirring up controversy and raising his network’s ratings. Of all the characters, his is the one that could be fleshed out to be a little more fully three dimensional. There is a strong temptation to make him the archetypal bad guy, and it is a little difficult, as currently written, to buy that the Congresswoman would be attracted to him. Depinto handles the difficulty extremely well and takes full advantage of the few moments he has to show some vulnerability.
Ross, as the Congresswoman, does not act, talk or dress as though she were a tough, successful lawyer who possesses the chutzpah and the savvy to get elected to Congress from Vermont — at least not in the one-on-one scenes with Tatum. Schiffbauer has the Hollywood/TV characters down pat. He needs to work on the kind of women that inhabit the halls of Congress. No way would one of them come into the office of a TV personality with a reputation for tearing up people’s careers and act the flirtatious coquette. I just don’t buy it. Nor do I buy the whirlwind affair that develops between “Maddy” and Tatum. During the broadcast itself, which takes up close to half of the play, Ross comes on strong as a feminist politician who has strongly held values and sticks to them. When her time comes to shine, she shines.
This is not a fatal flaw but it is significant. I think the Congresswoman should make her first appearance dressed in power black and completely on her guard with Tatum. That gives her some room to move, and to find some believable motivation — perhaps in being surprised that Tatum is both a handsome man and a real human being — toward a romantic relationship. As it is, two glasses of wine and ten minutes of suspiciously flirtatious tête-a-tête are not sufficient to lay the groundwork for what develops between these two.
Where would we be without our flaws? Perhaps that is the question raised by the play as well as about the play as currently scripted. In any event, it is an exhilarating evening of theatre and one not to be missed. You have only three chances left. Run, don’t walk.
Live Broadcast has 3 more performances at the Wonderbox, 629 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.