Some say, “Life is but a dream.” Others dub it a “bowl of cherries”, and certain movie characters’ mommas declare it a “box of chocolates.” (And just a regular box of chocolates, as opposed to an “‘idiot box’ of chocolates”. After all, “Stupid is as stupid does,” and, cinematically speaking, we are not watching T.V.—or are we…?) When things wax too dramatically, some might even label it a “soap opera”, but a “sitcom”…?—Almost never! A more close approximation would be in the middle where the twain might logically meet: A “sitopera”?—(or a “soapcom”…) This is essentially what The Idiot Box by Michael Elyanow, in part, sets out to explore.
Set in a lavishly large 8 bedroom penthouse in New York City, our story opens to a sextet of friends all living under the self same roof. Peals and fits of laughter do not emanate from the audience (at least not initially)—but definitely somewhere—but from where I ask you—where?!? Not that this is another otherwise crowded, yet cavernous, apartment full of happy, laughing squatters. No. This play, well the roughly first half hour at least, reads like a very good replica of a bad sitcom, hence the laugh track. It even opens as such to cheesy introductory poses (wherein one might imagine the credits appearing over characters’ statuesque images) to an original theme song sounding much like that of the intro to the 90s sitcom Friends.
Chloe, a curtain maker, suffers insomnia and at a certain point, her name is changed temporarily to “Eyebags”. Billy, the hot–and proud of it–male model, who can’t NOT seem to sleep with anybody and everybody of the female persuasion, suggests that the two of them go see a play to catch up on their ZZZzzzs: Chekov’s Three Sisters to be precise. Connor, the seemingly vulnerable, loveable ad exec, (though perhaps the character traits and labeled profession are a bit of an oxymoron) is simply depressed. As a result, his wife Stephanie, the blocked writer, gets him a little dog—a Pekapoo to be exact. Naturally Billy has to make the worst of the worst sitcommy jokes about this, “Let’s take a peek at your Pekapoo!”–wakka wakka wakka!—to which the disembodied voices laugh uproariously! The Pekapoo is not amused (and probably never will be). Nor is he a fan of Connor and herein begins some dramatic tension to set the stage for various and sundry changing stages of the play. Hint: A “Dog Shoosherer” by the name of Veronica will eventually need to be hired.—Yes, it’s that bad. (And yes, I said “Dog Shoosherer!”)
Connor’s sister Fiona is dating some weird guy named Harvey whom we later discover is a ‘chubby chaser’ even though Fiona is not the least bit fat, though he’d like to change that. To top everything off, Connor was supposed to send a telescope through the mail for a nephew’s bar mitzvah but, some porn magazines were sent in place of the instrument under the guise of a misunderstanding betwixt Connor and Chloe whose ultimate responsibility it was to send them out instead. (Even still, the symbolic and phallic nature of the telescope escapes me not, nor does its dual purpose to perhaps spy on the neighbors or see many a ‘moon’ or celestial body in the meantime—wanh, wanh waaaah!) Lastly Mark, the guy whose grandmother once owned the apartment, we later learn, married Chloe–the insomniac–in a mock ceremony in order to officially own the penthouse and considers it merely a marriage of convenience—or DOES HE…? Perhaps one of the reasons for Chloe’s fitful attempts at sleep in a world and/or relationship that does not seem to fit her or her longed for lifestyle. Perhaps said marriage is even holding the world together–or at least the world of the play, to a greater or lesser degree.
The crux of the comedy-into-drama seems to hinge on Chloe and Billy’s trip to Chekov’s Three Sisters: a title reminding me much of Shakespeare’s three magical, Macbethian witches. There Billy will meet the “girl” of his dreams who is certain to wake him up to any and all alternate inclinations if nothing else. Sleep will still elude Chloe but her attentiveness will not escape fellow audience member Omar who cannot help but watch her, as if in a dream, the entire production. He will follow her home in order to ascertain where she lives: stalk her essentially. However, none of this is bothersome in some strange way as his interest seems innocent and genuine enough and his attempts at conversation, sincere. Yet this is where things get really discordant. For as soon as Omar approaches the front door of the apartment, the lights suddenly start to flicker, as if in a Twilight Zoneish tremor, startling even Chloe as she answers the door.
From here on out, the more staid and real-worldly the situations and dialogue get, so improve the jokes by default. The canned laughter dies down, then halts all together, and then things get really crazy! While I’ll not divulge everything so as to preserve some suspense, suffice it to say, the arrival of Omar after the magic of the Three Sisters seems to be the only catalyst moving this play forward into dramatic form and out of the sitcom realm.
All in all a very well written, seamlessly paced, suspenseful piece, by Michael Elyanow, at the same time I wish the writing had gotten a little more specific in parts. Who is Omar really, aside from someone who disrupts the flow of this sitcom scripted life? Where does he come from and why? Why was it so important for him to do so, aside from love–or was it just love that moved him as such, and why is Mark so intent on holding his erstwhile badly comedically-timed world together? As the story felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone, (and as the play is entitled The Idiot Box alluding to television and its various and sundry programming) there were times when I wished it had read a little more Twilight Zoneish and gone a little more deep and detailed concerning the exact rules of the worlds we were straddling. Lighting by Christina Robinson was sound but again, in distinguishing the two worlds, I almost wish it had waxed a little more texturally film noir when the non-sitcom world was being born and explored. I did however, much enjoy what happened in their flickering when Omar first arrived. The set by Danny Cistone worked and worked well—particularly when all Hell breaks loose in Act II!
Overall, a very well done presentation; Rick Shaw did an excellent job in its direction. Acting was so real at times, I almost forgot I was in a theatre which is particularly ironic considering the manner in which this play began. Jordan Wall as Mark is both normal and nefarious. Erin Poland is superfluously sexy to smartly sympathetic as Fiona. Carlo Samame as Billy is much the same with a little extra vulnerability to his name. Emma Servant as Stephanie Dash is desperately endearing yet doggedly domineering in her role as wife to Connor’s husbandry and dog mother to Pekapoo “Sunshine”. Grey Rodriguez as Connor Dash shares a similar despondency in his depression, along with a certain loveable doofiness, until he surprises us all at the end by a complete and utter dispositional 180. Carlos J. Castillo as Fiona’s ‘boyfriend’ Harvey is haughty to heartfelt. AJ Brody as Billy’s apt non-opponent in love Raymond/Raymona was fabulous to fantastic in all his fake breasted/real chested glory, and Katie Zeiner as “Dog Shoosherer” Veronica: folksy and forthcoming. But it is the characters of Chloe and Omar who tie the play together. Portrayed by a steadfast and likeable Shelly Hacco and a heartily sincere Philip AJ Smithey respectively, there are moments when I honestly forget they are acting. Take away the sets, the lighting, the audience, and heretofore laugh track, and you may as well be in someone’s living room, or a really well improvised soap opera rehearsal. This kind of acting displayed by the entire cast is seriously what makes actors aspire to be actors!
The Idiot Box runs at Theatre 68 until June 27th.–And oh, it’s like a real building with snacks, a lobby, kooshy chairs, really cool art work on the walls, and a multiple-stalled his and hers bathrooms that do not disrupt the fourth wall (so you don’t have to be all like, ‘Sorry, ‘scuse me,’ ‘Hey how’s it goin?’ with a perfunctory upward nod should you run into any varying and sundry performers backstage whether you agree with their dramatic interpretation or not). Seriously, my kind of place! Check it out!!!
For tickets and information, please visit: