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Good Television

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jessica Cummings, Talia Balsam, and Kelly McAndrew.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

How original can a play be when it depends on a shopworn premise? Judging by Good Television, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 space, playwright Rod McLachlan is determined to find out. He's crafted about as intimate and emotional work as could likely be derived from the apparently inarguable axiom that reality TV has nothing to do with reality. But while watching Bob Krakower's smartly directed and intricately acted production, you may find yourself wondering just how great of an achievement that is.

After all, it wasn't long after the CBS series Survivor ignited the current craze that most viewers learned (or perhaps realized) that nothing in such shows is ever quite the way it appears. Meticulously set-up shots, heavy-duty editing, and even (to a significant extent, in some cases) scripting are parts of the formula, ready to be encountered (at best) or manipulated (at worst) by the ostensibly honest subjects of the entertainment. The participant who maintains the most control usually comes out on top—either with the official prize, or with the award of public opinion—but the networks are always really in command.

If you accept all this as a given, the chances aren't good that McLachlan will take you anywhere surprising once he's established his players. In fairness, he does that with some amount of detail and wit: The first person we meet is Clemson MacAddy (John Magaro), a muddled young South Carolina man who's recording a video "confessional" about his methamphetamine problem, and being coached from an invisible voice offstage to make his pain as pungent and specific as possible. Already it's clear that there's a war brewing between the actual (little a) and the Actual (capital A), with the brutally addicted Clemson caught in the middle.

The action shifts to Los Angeles soon after, and we learn that Clemson has applied to be on the TV show Rehabilitation, which spends a week trailing the most messed-up addicts in can find, forces them into interventions, and then provides treatment if they agree to get the help, and if everyone around them can keep the subterfuge secret. The series's show runner Bernice (Talia Balsam) and producer Connie (Kelly McAndrew) are split over whether to pick Clemson: Bernice is looking for ways to fill out the expanded season the network wants and thinks he's good enough, but Connie insists she sees in him neither tragedy nor an upward trajectory that might elevate either his life or the series.

Scheduling realities force Connie to give Clemson a second look and contact those closest to him, who include older siblings Brittany (Zoe Perry) and Mackson (Luke Robertson). The former seems legitimate, a straightforward working woman saddled with difficult circumstances, who seems genuinely concerned about Clemson's well-being. The latter is another matter: In talking with Connie, he's insistent on managing things and asks about budgeting and "life rights"—terms he learned about during his day job at a TV station.

Andrew Stewart-Jones, Jessica Cummings, Zoe Perry, and Kelly McAndrew.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

Mackson is McLachlan's most flagrant overplaying of his hand; there's just nowhere for him to take the action once a professional is asked to become a player. There's then no doubt that Clemson will be chosen, or that things will fall apart almost immediately once filming begins. Or, for that matter, that the L.A. folks will become embroiled in endless bitter debates about their social responsibility and how they can use their power to improve lives (and, yes, occasionally ratings). Eventually, McLachlan becomes more interested in checking items off a list than he does building on his foundation.

He introduces a bit of intrigue via Tara (Jessica Cummings), a new assistant producer, and Ethan (Andrew Stewart-Jones), Bernice's replacement show runner who is pressed into camera service at the last possible moment: You know that they will either screw up or save Rehabilitation, but you're not quite sure how. And questions about Connie's motives sufficiently pit her do-gooder façade to keep her from becoming a plain-vanilla do-gooder. For the most part, however, Good Television begins drowning in predictability from about the halfway point of its first act, and never comes close to shore again.

As soon as you realize this, disappointment sets in, because otherwise there are a lot of good elements on hand. Except for Clemson's father (earnestly played by Ned Van Zandt), who's structured far too mechanically and melodramatically to be a natural fit into the story, the characters are nicely drawn. There's a handsome interplay between the TV staffers that mirrors the sharp-edged codependency of the MacAddys, and points up how families can form anywhere when circumstances permit; the sororal kinship that develops between Connie and Brittany as they discover just how alike they are becomes the play's most compelling feature.

McAndrew and Perry (the latter of whom was recently seen on Broadway last season in The Other Place) make the most of that relationship, and movingly form a bond that gives the arid latter sections of the evening some real heart. The desperation both women deploy, subtle at first and more frantic later, never feels less than real, and it keeps you involved in struggles that could otherwise easily veer toward the two-dimensional. Everyone else is nearly as good, committed to crafting personalities that convince you on which side of the screen they truly belong.

But neither the performers nor Krakower's confident, declarative staging, on Eric Southern's starkly effective institutional–meets–trailer park set, can ultimately make much out of Good Television. Fresh insights, incisive commentary on the predatory Hollywood mindset, or even just unexpected plot machinations or simple entertainment are nowhere to be found here. It's perhaps appropriate, then, that this show is appearing so early in the summer theatre season: It fits right in among the June, July, and August broadcasts on the networks that are packed full of content you've seen too many times before.

Good Television
Through June 16
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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