- Greggory Moore
By a strange coincidence, 1994 gave birth to two separate fictional retellings of the results-fixing scandal at the 1950s game show Twenty One. The first was Richard Greenberg’s play Night and Her Stars. Months later came the film Quiz Show, which garnered four Oscar nominations and forever saddled Greenberg’s play with the baggage of comparison.
A work of art should be taken on its own merits, of course. But because Night and Her Stars trods almost exactly the same ground as Quiz Show—and doesn’t offer anything as good in the way of insight—if you’ve seen the film, Night and Her Stars may not get a fair viewing.
It’s the 1950s. Television is America’s newest god, but savvy TV producer Dan Enright (Robert Edward), whose quiz show Twenty One is stillborn, recognizes a special problem with TV that did not plague radio: universal specificity. With radio, he says, listeners of a show—say, the radio soap Ma Perkins—dress up the experience in the theater of one’s own mind. But as Enright notes, with TV “it’s not your Ma Perkins or my Ma Perkins—it’s just Ma Perkins.” From there it’s a small step to realize how much he can manipulate the perceptions and reactions of the viewing public.
And realize it he does, embarking on his fateful course when Herb Stempel (Anthony Galleran) auditions. Stempel may be a bit of a spaz—not that Enright can’t turn that to a ratings advantage—but he’s got the sort of encyclopedic knowledgebase that perfectly suits the show. His backstory, though—a working-class life in Queens with a healthy child—isn’t as juicy as it might be, so Enright enlists Stempel—a man desperate for some sort of recognition in life—in a bit of poetic license, divining how it will play to the viewing public. Will Stempel win, or “will his child perish from some poor-person’s disease in terrible Brooklyn?” We’ll be back to find out right after these messages.
But for Enright’s plan to work, he needs to ensure Stempel’s success, and so the fix is in, and Twenty One becomes a sensation. But no sensation lasts forever, so Enright keeps an eye out for replacing the good with the better. And when college professor Charles Van Doren (Sumner Leveque)—the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winner, no less—walks through the door, it’s bad news for Herb.
Greenberg’s prose is sometimes well constructed, but ultimately we never penetrate deeply into the people mouthing it. Enright wants ratings, Stempel wants attention—that’s about as much as we ever learn about them. The most fleshed-out character is Van Doren, who can’t resist the chance to wear an intellectual mantle a few sizes too big. But even here Greenberg never really explores the neurosis behind the need.
Director Matt Anderson would have done well to have his cast modulate their performance. In the small space that is the Garage Theatre all that yelling wears thin. It’s not that there isn’t a logic to going over the top, as Greenberg’s minor characters are intentionally caricatured. But amplifying the lack of nuance here pays diminishing returns.
One very strong performance is Robert Edwards’s turn as the Faustian Enright. His silver-tongued slickness is seductive enough that you believe him capable of pulling the strings deftly enough to get exactly he wants and then come away relatively unscathed when it all falls apart. Edwards’s every gesture and facial expression is impeccable. Moreover, despite possessing a stentorian voice capable of filling a much larger space, he is perfectly modulated from start to finish, saving his loudest outdoor voice for when he needs it, while also being willing to go so quiet that you almost have to strain to hear him.
Going with a minimalist set—little more than slats of wood cobbled together for efficiency—is a strong choice, a sort of stripping away the TV glitz for a script all about revealing that the emperor has no clothes. Anderson does a nice job with blocking the action across this set, and Yammy Swoot’s lighting design generates many strong visuals.
Poll a hundred people who have seen Quiz Show and a hundred people who haven’t, and the latter group is bound to enjoy Night and Her Stars more than the former. Two tales of how TV execs fixed “real-life” shows in order to generate greater viewer interest based on exactly the same characters and covering more or less exactly the same ground is probably one too many for most viewers.
But what was true in the 1950s and in the 1990s remains true today: the great reality of television is not so much what’s onscreen, but the manipulation of the viewing public. The game is fixed, and the house always wins. A reminder of that fact never hurts.
NIGHT AND HER STARS THE GARAGE+ALIVE THEATRE • 251 E 7TH ST (JUST OFF LONG BEACH BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90813 • 562.433.8337 THEGARAGETHEATRE.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM • $18; $15 FOR STUDENTS & SENIORS (THURSDAY TIX ARE 2-FOR-1); CLOSING NIGHT + PARTY $20 • THROUGH JUNE 28
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