Photo courtesy South Coast RepertoryDumb Show, the newest offering from noted "in-yer-face" English playwright Joe Penhall that's receiving its American premiere at the Julianne Argyros stage at South Coast Repertory, has been getting plenty of pre-opening publicity, some of it from this paper (which is, incidentally, the play's Media Partner), but I'm not sure what the fuss has been about. Penhall's competent, all right: Dumb Show's scenes are focused and densely scripted (while at the same time always moving along quickly), and he's brash and he can be funny and he's not afraid of big public issues—this play's about fame and the heinous world of British tabloid journalism. The acting's efficient enough—professional grade—and David Emmes' direction, as usual, is fleet and serviceable. You can watch Dumb Show and have a pretty good time, but you keep waiting for the thing to kick in, for the moment when things start to matter and you can start caring, but it never does. And then you walk out and realize that you still don't care and that what you've seen is a well-engineered little piffle of a play.
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Could be Penhall's attitude. In a recent interview with the LA Times, Penhall describes how Dumb Show's a comic lark for him after a string of five intense, sometimes personal dramas that have made his reputation in England and the States (including his first play, Some Voices, that just closed at Rude Guerrilla). Nothing wrong with that, of course: he deserves a laugh, and so do we. But Dumb Show isn't just a lark: it dramatizes the despicabilities and seductions of the world of Brit tabloids—one fat and easy target—but it refuses to go beyond the fat and the easy. "There's no point in trying to get to grips with the issues of freedom of the press and why the tabloid press in England is so malign and mendacious," Penhall says. But if you're not going to turn the play into a character study (which this play doesn't—the characters are pretty stock), and you're not going to take on those issues, then what is the point?
The jokes, I guess. Dumb Show is about a weak-willed, aging British comedian named Barry (a shambling, butterballed Micheal McShane) who's shouldering a troubled marriage to a sickly wife, a recently deceased mother, and a drug and alcohol problem while putting on a successful TV show. He's ensnared by a couple of tabloid journalists named Liz and Greg (Heidi Dippold and John Rafter Lee, respectively) who pose as private bankers in order to insinuate themselves into his life and write a withering expos. The tabloid scribblers are at first sycophantic and horrible, getting Barry to trust them, and later, when they've entrapped him by getting him drunk enough to snort some coke and come on to Liz (on hidden camera), they're hypocritical and horrible. (With the incriminating evidence in hand, they try to blackmail Barry into opening up completely about his life for their paper, citing "the public interest.") Barry, poor guy, gets off some pretty funny jokes as he begins to understand his predicament, and there was one roar in the crowd when Liz informs Barry that cocaine isn't rampant in the world of private banking: "No, that's corporate banking." (I thought that was the '80s and '90s, but then again, I don't work in Irvine or Newport Beach.) But Liz and Greg's initial ass-kissing of their target, while meant to be funny, is obvious; and later, their earnest, hypocritical rants about how the tabloids are all about the public's right to know the honest truth about public figures, blah blah blah, are so tired, the ironies so heavy-handed, that the humor falls mostly flat. All but the play's last scene takes place in a five-star London hotel room, and so whenever Penhall needs Liz and Greg to conspire together or explain themselves to us, he shuffles Barry off to the bathroom to call his agent. Again, way obvious.
There's one scene where Greg is explaining tabloid logic to Barry, where he tells him that he has no choice but to ruin Barry's life because of "the public interest" in Barry's private life. Barry finally explodes that there's a simple way of avoiding both his own public demise and the public's leering interest in stuff that's none of their business: "Don't put it in the paper, you fuckwit!" It's a good line, and McShane pulls it off with maximum frustrated humor, but it's also all the play has to say. Penhall has the standard civilized contempt for the British tabloids, but his contempt extends to not taking them seriously in his own play, which means he doesn't take his own play seriously. And so we can't. And all that's left is the jokes. Ha.
DUMB SHOW AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 16. $20-$58.