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Arts and Entertainment

Theatre Review: The Idiot Box

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The Idiot Box portrays the structural demise of a group of Friends-esque roommates living in an alternate realm of televised situational comedy (complete with predictable jokes, stereotypes, accepted sexism, and laugh tracks) that slowly collapses under the weight of the crude reality of the modern human condition. This Open Fist Theatre production has all of the traditional markers of a really good drama: Michael Elyanow's new play is a carefully crafted quagmire of complex, yet well-structured writing that painstakingly deconstructs commercialized apathy; Jeremy Cohen's complementary stage direction subtly juggles all of the unnerving discomfort, painful associations, and concocted awe that the Idiot Box inherently emotes with the tact of a Twilight Zone junkie; and the cast skillfully completes the production, straddling both exaggerated artificiality and awakened intensity as their paradigm shifts from that of a sit-com world to one of war, terrorism, poverty, racism, psychological crises, mediocrity, self-loathing, and fear.

The acting, writing, and direction in this production are undeniably good, but, what makes the Idiot Box a uniquely compelling play, is of all unexpected things, the audience. Never in my play-going life have I witnessed such a perfectly curated theatrical paradox. The audience was a juxtaposition of the ironies that were poised as the founding crux of the play. Collectively watching the play, the audience was literally a living, breathing, non-fictional expression of the apathetic escapism that allows socio-political atrocities to occur despite the liberating potential of our expansive media.

Several audience-versus-play quandaries arose. Some audience members apparently did not know that just because the production was about television, that they were not entitled to do the things that they do at home while they are watching television, such as wandering around, talking, and calling out personal commentary over the actors' lines. These rude offenders parallel the self-absorption that guides most sit-com characters. Another example was that the majority of the audience members watching the Idiot Box did not understand that the sit-com portion of the play was not actually supposed to make them laugh -- the laugh tracks that sounded after the extremely predictable network-style jokes were in place to show us that we often laugh at television because the laugh tracks tell us that we are supposed to laugh, not because something comedic has actually been said. It was if all of the years of television watching practiced by the audience had destroyed their ability to think for themselves. At one point of the play, the characters make clear that something in their insular world has changed and they acknowledge that their laugh track has suddenly disappeared. Darkly uncomfortable circumstances begin to emerge as the characters are forced to confront the American invasion of Iraq and September 11th. Sadly, it was during these moments that many of the audience members decided to stop showing any interest in the play. I saw blank expressions, listened to bored sighs, and noticed flat effects when very accurate portrayals of tragic scenarios occurred.

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The Idiot Box audience members insisted on numbing their brains during the play because the objective of the production changed. When the play was no longer just a medium for inane entertainment but rather a very clever vehicle for raw social commentary, the audience, not interested in seeing or understanding the grossly callous pop-culture monster that the United States has become, tuned-out. Ultimately, this play was about this audience.

The Idiot Box is playing at 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, between Vine Street and El Centro Avenue, until August 25th, 2007. Additional information and tickets can be obtained through the Open Fist Theatre website or by calling 323-882-6912. Tickets are $20.

Photo by jonnybaker via Flickr.