Intense. Frenetic. Fun(ny). Eye-popping. Richard Dresser’s Trouble Cometh in its world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse delivers this and more in its wham-bam, take-no-prisoners, seventy-five minutes.
A white-walled, windowless room with a plain worktable and eye-hurting bright lights is maxed out with 30-something testosterone energy as Joe and Dennis sweat to create under strict and short deadline a proposal for a new reality TV show. Talking (actually mostly shouting) in clipped phrases full of current fad and fashion words and jargon, the two banter, pace, mull, pout, argue, and high-five their way into more and more outlandish ideas to sell to ‘the eleventh floor.’ Kelley, in five-inch stilettos and slinky dresses that belong on a runway, comes in and out of the conference room to take food orders, to relay messages ‘from above,’ or just to raise the room’s testosterone levels even higher with her plunging necklines. Multiple scenes abruptly end, usually as a new dilemma or a twist in events is introduced. The stark conference room quickly shifts to a softly lit, high-style bar and back again as part of Nina Ball’s clever scene design. In the bar, we see Joe propose to the environmentalist activist Sue. But we also see him and Kelley get it on together at that same bar, different scene. We then hear back in the conference room that Kelley has spent the evening prior (presumably without sexy dress on) with Joe (who is happily married with kids). We later witness Kelley and Sue all of a sudden making sparks together, and more, in the bar’s dim lights. In between, it is back to creating the next big hit show while downing Red Bulls and demanding a bag of Bugles.
As the boss of the creation team, Dennis (Patrick Russell) pushes himself and everyone around him in manic manner in a way that is exhausting and exhilarating to watch. He is like a drill sergeant one moment yelling commands to whoever is in the room and is in the next a hurt little boy if at all criticized or doubted for all his outlandish claims of past military heroics or market successes. He is book-ended by Joe (the excellent Kyle Cameron) who plays at first the more mild-mannered, let’s-make-nice guy but who transforms (through Kelly’s coaching) into a dog-eat-dog, let’s-do-this aggressor. Liz Sklar’s Kelly moves in to become the real mover and shaker of this team; her portrayal of this smart, sophisticated, but over-the-top sexy assistant is super fun to watch. Marissa Keltie, as Joe’s fiancé Susan, brings an air of mystery, of bored sullenness, and yet a vengeful drive to beat Joe at his own game of “my job is more important and stressful.” Together with Nandita Shenoy (who enters in later scenes as Vashti, the “11th floor” rep), this ensemble is truly top-notch, well-cast, and expertly directed in all their comings, goings, and inter-scene mixings by May Adrales.
To say any more about this farcical, even absurdist look at our current obsession with reality TV would give away too many clues of what is to come in this fun-filled thriller of a show. (And by the way, for the surprise to come, clues are sprinkled everywhere; but who has time to look or notice with all the shouting, flirting, and frenzy going on?) Richard Dresser has created the feeling of being trapped from Sartre’s No Exit in this four-walled workspace, and the parallels increase as the play climaxes. He also calls to mind the mysterious, uneasy feelings we get in watching Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, (I really expected Rod to come out at the end for final commentary). And there are some Beavis and Butthead aspects of farce as we watch Dennis and Joe push every boundary possible in dreaming up their reality TV show.
In the end, we get creepy feelings that no matter how crazy or absurd reality TV has become, the boundaries between it and our everyday reality are quite porous. Kardashians become our real-life stars to be followed daily. A Robert Durst confesses murder while in the bathroom after the taping of The Jinx. And Joe, Dennis, Kelly, Sue, and Vashti: Who are they really? Go see Dresser’s top-notch world premiere, and find out.
The world premiere of Trouble Cometh continues at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco through June 27, 2015.
Rating: 4 E’s