Rod Serling's legendary television series The Twilight Zone shook up mainstream-minded squares and creepy-geeky sci-fi nuts alike from 1959 to 1964 by offering a glimpse into a parallel universe in which the hands of fate and irony wreaked havoc with human lives, and more often than not, the good guy (or girl) lost. The tales were usually dark, sometimes sad, often bizarre and, now and then, quite tender, and while the supernatural was an obvious and perplexing force in the fictional lives we viewed, those lives and their obstacles resonated, and we often saw ourselves within them.
Since that original run, the 156 episodes of fantasy, horror, suspense and mystery that covertly exposed social issues such as war, racism, censorship, and warped and misguided human nature have been in daily rotation on the tube, packed together into holiday marathons, turned into a film and rebooted in two revival series. There's even been a pinball-machine version and a Disneyland ride. Such vast media coverage, therefore, makes most of us assume that everyone has probably seen every Twilight Zone story—and possibly even made some major life decisions based on the tragedies of classic characters, such as, oh, let's say finally getting Lasik surgery after being haunted by Burgess Meredith in "Time Enough at Last" for 30 years. Just sayin'.
To reinvent, re-imagine or change in any way a Twilight Zone story has always been a slippery slope. Only the pinball machine and California Adventure's Tower of Terror have proven successful. That's because The Twilight Zone is pretty much perfect, with its messages and tragic, twisty climaxes still engendering our compassion and appreciation for finely crafted satire. In STAGEStheatre's production of The Twilight Zone, four of these classic tales are reissued: "The Obsolete Man," "People Are Alike All Over," "A Kind of Stopwatch" and "The Living Doll," with each act directed alternately by Darri Kristin and David Campos. The first two stories are futuristic looks at the state and the state of man, political in nature and allegorical; the last two are devilish examples of the tricky paranormal punches often thrown in the Fourth Dimension, with "Living Doll" being the most beloved and well-known in the group. And it is here that we arrive at that slippery slope.
The Twilight Zone at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Nov. 4. $18-$20.
While makers of the 1983 Twilight Zone film were faithful to the source material, the glossy production (sans Billy Mumy* and William Shatner) failed to make the grade. (The Twilight Zone was never about special effects, but rather about the effects of the mind.) STAGES' production suffers from a different problem, however, and it's probably insurmountable. While directors Kristin and Campos no doubt feel they're honoring sacred material by presenting the stories unaltered and focusing solely on the scripts, the minimalist production is, in fact, even less stimulating than even the most static television scene. The Twilight Zone stories are equal parts dialogue and character, and it's usually the visual—especially close-ups of characters—that are vital to the story's impact, even if they aren't elaborate, as in the case of that damned Talking Tina. In "Living Doll," therefore, we only see Tina from afar, although her voice is piped in through the sound system, and that seemingly small change knocks the creep factor right out of the room. What's left is a rather silly scenario of people running up and down the stairs arguing about what makes a crappy stepfather and hating on a tacky toy.
Likewise, in "People Are Alike All Over," there is no stunning final visual of astronaut Conrad imprisoned in a Martian zoo surrounded by bars and a stadium full of Martian tourists, which is the essential visual in the story—the "gotcha" moment. Instead, we just get a little sign labeling him a human species. Okay, but not quite riveting.
In "A Kind of Stopwatch," a limp tale to begin with, the only bit that's even slightly amusing are the postures the actors form when dork-of-the-year McNulty activates his time-freezing stopwatch. Otherwise, we only note how shoddy the fake office and bar settings appear.
The story that has the fewest hitches is "Obsolete Man," since, by nature, it demands minimalism, and yet it still fails to land, especially with anyone who already knows the ending.
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So, how do you win? Who can say? Perhaps, in this case, a few special effects or updating might have helped—a flying eyeball during each opening monologue? Making the characters modern-day celebrity or political personalities to show the current satirical relevance? Try as I might, I can't think of one good reason why you should forego the best versions, now playing on your local TV stations, and instead sit through this well-intentioned but wholly disappointing production. Serling's baby continues to be untouchable, apparently, which is just one of those things that can only be explained, well, you know where. . . .
This review appeared in print as "Zoned Out: Buffs of the Rod Serling sci-fi series should beware of STAGEStheatre's take on the classic."
*This name was misspelled in the original.