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Wonderbox, 629 New York Ave. NW
Saturday, July 16, 2:45 p.m.
Tuesday, July 19, 7 p.m.
They say: “Live Broadcast examines the relationship between Hollywood, politics, and the media. When a young conservative movie star appears on a prime time political talk show he plunges his carefully orchestrated career into jeopardy.”
Ian’s Take: With its hard-edged staccato dialogue, half-sentences, lightning quick exchanges, and well-timed interruptions, it would be easy to mistake John William Schiffbauer‘s Live Broadcast for a David Mamet work. And not a Mamet knock-off, either, which is the more likely scenario given the deceptive complexity of this kind of use of language. To pull it off, the writer needs the rhythm and elegance of Shakespeare combined with the economy of Hemingway. This is language used as a heavy, blunt weapon, but wielded with surgical precision. Increasing the likelihood of failure, you also need actors with the timing to pull off the hot-blooded verbal tango needed to deliver these lines convincingly.
And that’s exactly what director Daniel Flint gets in this cast of four, ably navigating Shiffbauer’s script as he examines the tense relationship between Hollywood, the political realm, and the media that covers them both with a nose for fresh blood. The writer himself plays Tom Powers, a rising Hollywood star in the Shia LeBeouf mold: considered a pretty-faced young action star, and not much else.
But Powers has a dirty little not-so-secret, which is that he’s a politically conservative Iowa farmboy, a fact that his agent, Jane (Marni Penning), goes to great lengths to keep out of the public conversation. Which is why she’s understandably reticent to allow Tom to appear on a one-on-one debate-style political talk show hosted by his old friend Jack (Nick DePinto); she suspects it’s an ambush designed to get big ratings, particularly when he reveals that he wants to pit Tom against a progressive Vermont Congresswoman, Madeline Bruce (Tonya Beckman Ross).
The negotiations over the show mount in a slow burn of building tension. Jane is a bulldog in the protection of her client, particularly in her dealings with Jack, who has burned her before. Tom is desperate to prove he’s more than just a pretty face (and unapologetic about the views that Jane believes could destroy his career), while Madeline is eager to increase her political visibility. Everyone has something they want from one another, both personally and professionally, and all of these cars are headed for a collision course on the day of the show.
The show has one weakness, and it’s a big one: Few things are as difficult as getting the realities of political discourse into drama in a way that feels genuine, and Schiffbauer’s formidable talents as a wordsmith still can’t overcome that particular hurdle. Earlier in the play, Tom and Madeline each seperately deliver monologues outlining a little too literally the themes of the play as media critique. When they begin making speeches, they sound less like themselves, and more like a writer speaking through them. Similarly, the taping of the television program is made up mostly of standard talking head bickering that, while it does have a greater purpose in the plot, feels like it takes too long to move the characters forward, not quite justifying the bare-nerve anticipation that’s been created for it.
This sequence also contains the play’s only real eye-rollingly false moment, when the hard-nosed Jane suddenly changes her all-business attitude toward her client’s constant romantic propositions, based solely on his performance in the first half of the show. It doesn’t feel like Jane at all, and feels a little insulting to the otherwise strong character Shiffbauer has built up to this point.
To his credit, though, he recovers from these final act issues admirably, returning the play to what it does best for its final minutes: the personal interactions between the characters. The writer wants this work to be much bigger than they are—-and to some extent it’s successful in that—-but the fact is that it doesn’t need to reach as strenuously as it sometimes does: Schiffbauer has a massive talent for putting human drama onstage, and should be content to let his characters carry his themes more subtly. That’s what he does for the majority of the play, and when he does, this is the kind of work that can hold you on the edge of your seat just with the power of its language.
See it if: You enjoy words and people who know how to use them.
Skip it if: The mere mention of Meet the Press makes you want to turn the TV off.