Photo by Jack MillsIt's generally a bad idea to tell theatergoers that the ticket they've just bought is evidence of their own stupidity—that theater is dead and you've got a ringside seat in the graveyard. But that's how Slabbegins, with frustrated theater director Louden (a likeably arrogant Keola Simpson) confiding to the audience that theater is dead, that it lost a battle it never knew it was waging. Its enemies? Film and television, of course, but also the meager attention span and desire for instant gratification of a public that would rather watch Joe Millionaire, Survivorand Who's Paris Hilton Fucking?than venture out to see live theater.
But rather than recognizing and appreciating the fact that live theater is vital and important primarily because it's a marginalized medium, Louden trades in the currency of the mainstream: if reality TV is the rage, why not mount a play in which a real person is really killed on stage? The buzz surrounding such a venture will, Louden believes, get people talking about live theater again. And that's exactly what happens. Helped by his tressexy assistant Seela (Virginia Wilcox), Louden finds a script in which someone dies at the end and, most importantly, finds an actor, Tony Slab (Brian Dawson), willing to die for his craft. Word gets out to the media and, sooner than you can say cheap-publicity stunt, national television networks are lining up to be the first to broadcast a real death on stage.
As a production, this is a fun and lively mounting (courtesy of director Kristina Leach) of a new play by Sean Michael Welch that desperately needs a rewrite. Though Welch's script skirts interesting ideas—most provocatively the question of what's real in an age when the visual medium is the only reality many people care about—his play bails out of its own themes and its own story. From the hackneyed, ham-fisted ending to anemic characterization (like the silent Howard Hughesish producer who has no problem ponying up cash to produce a wretchedly written play), there are enough holes in Welch's script to fill the Albert Hall.
There is no shortage of original plays that fail to fulfill their promise. But plays that explore the virtues of live theater—the interaction between live performer and live viewer, the unparalleled power and majesty of language (whether it's a richly poetic monologue or a scene in which not a single word is spoken): that's rarer than rare. And that's why Welch's play is so disappointing. Although he fails to say anything new about live theater's role in a society dominated by recorded visuals, we can applaud him for raising the question. And then we can go back to channel surfing.
Grand Central Theater, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Dec. 14. $8-$10.