The New York International Fringe Festival
“Wait,” you may be crying, “you’re missing the point! Stewart just wants to have fun spinning the late-night talk show host into a William Shakespeare play we already know.” True. And for a Fringe Festival project, that’s as good a goal as any. But by adopting Macbeth not just as his model but also as his structure, Stewart prevents himself from delivering any real insights into one of American entertainment’s most complicated figures. Depicting Leno as a self-destructive Shakespearean isn’t a bad idea — it’s a good one that demands a more serious, or at least more thoughtful, treatment than it receives here.
As it is, Stewart has gone to extravagant — and questionable — lengths to shoehorn Leno’s story into Macbeth’s framework. Is Leno (Joshua Key-Maginnis) a power-mad opportunist, as he’s portrayed here (with more than a dose of cluelessness), or is he a businessman who doesn’t always make the broadest-thinking choices? Was Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick (Anne Richmond), a coercive and corrosive yet breakable force like Lady Macbeth, or something more overtly hungry? Sure, Johnny Carson (Michael Lister) as King Duncan is a smart notion, but does Conan O’Brien (Seth Andrew Bridges) sufficiently track to Duncan, David Letterman (Bill Bria) to Malcom, and especially Jon Stewart (John Kurzynowski) to Macduff? And is Stewart’s dialogue supposed to parody itself as it strains to conform with preconceived notions: “Is this a microphone I see before me?” Really?
In spite of such desperation, things hold together acceptably enough through Leno’s initial sparring with Letterman over the Tonight Show gig the first time around — though much of it isn’t dramatized directly — and into the recent unpleasantness that found Leno replacing O’Brien on the Tonight Show, after O’Brien replaced Leno less than a year before. But after that, when Stewart scripts assaults on NBC studios (with NBC underlings hiding their faces with leather portfolios rather than the trees of Birnam Wood) and a murdered O’Brien returning to life as a deity with more healing authority than Jesus, the show becomes less a thought experiment than an exercise in tedium.
Stewart doesn’t help matters with his clumsy, unimaginative staging that doesn’t make the most of either his text or Shakespeare’s; it’s static-feeling and inward-looking when it should be trying to draw us under its spell. (Laura Helmer’s costumes, which combine ancient lace and frills with contemporary power suits, are clever, however.) Stewart has also coaxed iffy performances from all his actors: Bridges’s O’Brien is the most sensible and restrained figure onstage, which alone tells you something is amiss. But Key-Maginnis and Richmond especially don’t connect with their roles as part of a larger story, settling for external tics and funny voices (in Key-Maginnis’s case) and by-the-book ball-breaking gorgon tendencies (in Richmond’s). In fairness, everyone displays this flattening simplification — they all deliver their lines like they just want to have fun. But when photocopying Macbeth and replacing the names, “fun” alone doesn’t quite cut it, especially if that fun is at best intermittent.
It perhaps goes without saying that the actors don’t remotely look or sound anything like the people they’re playing. That’s not a problem, but it is that they — like Stewart — haven’t found a believable way to link their characters to their Shakespearean roots. Had Stewart written a modern Shakespearean tragedy or presented the original Macbeth as a comment on the late-night TV wars, the results might been illuminating. But his halfway, half-hearted combination of those ideas in MacChin doesn’t tell you anything that other sources (from newspapers and celebrity blogs to The Night Shift, in both book and telefilm form) haven’t explored more fully. Leno will undoubtedly continue to fascinate and frustrate, but Stewart’s own ambitions in relating the comic’s story may be better served later — it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Leno’s story is far from finished.
VENUE #10: Players Theatre