A small-town TV station in middle America circa 1959 loses its CBS affiliation and turns to minor talents in its own town for indigenous programming.
Cameron Darwin Bossert’s Television is an exploration of media’s potential to manipulate at the grass roots level from the very dawn of television’s existence. From the opening scene, as the Fitzwater family is at home entertaining Mr. Wesley Harris, (Arash Mokhtar perfectly channeling the typical 50’s smooth operator: think an oily used car salesman that breaks into your house to complete his sale) the man that runs the local TV station, we feel that something just isn’t right. Patty, the wife, is a welcoming housewife, while her husband Arnold is abrupt, unfriendly, and unexpressive. As soon as their visiting company leaves, they whip out their books and immerse themselves in reading rather than speaking to each other.
Manipulation in Television is both personal and professional. Sometimes it’s utterly harmless, as in Patty, touchingly played by Mary Monahan, being so desperate for conversation she convinces Wesley to stay for dinner. Her hospitality extends to even Lionel, the local mailman, who gets not only a meal, but a ride home in the rainstorm from Wesley, despite the fact the station manager lives right next door to the Fitzwaters. Everyone wants information from other people…except for Arnold, played pokerfaced by Dikran Tulaine. If anything, he blurts out interjections that are meant to end conversations.
When Lionel apologizes for delivering mail late during a heavy downpour, Patty replies, “It’s not your fault.” To which Arnold counters, “How do you know it’s not his fault?” Patty, guilty of a little pride in her son going to school to study Psychology, tells Wesley, “He’ll size you up when he comes back as everybody’s doctor.” Arnold deflates her, “with a drum and face paint.” Arnold’s milieu, the only time he ever fit in socially, was in the military serving in both World War II and the Korean conflict. He says things, sometimes under his breath, but more often than not, loudly, revealing he is utterly bereft of any social skills.
Patty and Arnold’s son Billy, returning home from college, is nothing like either parent. Pensive, yet polite, (played by an intriguing Cian Genaro whose adherence to playing subtext provides the most interesting twist to this drama), he is a classic speak-only-when-spoken-to young man who expresses himself more succinctly in his writing. Out of boredom at school he has begun revealing an artistic side in vignettes that can easily pass for one-hour television melodramas. Wesley is smitten with the idea of producing Billy’s work as a small-town antidote for the lack of programming when CBS cancels their contract and moves all affiliate programming to a neighboring town for a higher tower and larger audience. Wesley coerces the town’s reigning “Meryl Streep” from her Chekhov and Ibsen repertory to star in Billy’s series, now called “Clippings.” That actress coincidentally is Patty’s sister (and Billy’s aunt) …could the town of Avondale, Colorado be any smaller?
Aprella Godfrey Barule as Sandra Keefe has fun with her own subtext. In the constant bickering with Wesley during rehearsals, innuendo points to there being so much more to the working relationship than a station manager-cum director finding fault with his actress. Add to this mix a consummate straight man performance by Bobby Underwood as Barry, the station’s jack of all trades: accountant, stage manager and lately, leading actor, as well as the utterly charming-but-not-afraid-of-confrontation mailman Lionel who gets drafted into being a talk show host, skillfully played by Wesli Spencer.
Bossert directs his own work here, thereby unfortunately removing any crucial distance from the material. Where the story of the play and the relationships we see are engaging, the play-within-the-play enacted by Sandra and Barry is not. The narrative there is a sequence of conversations cut off by interruptions that neither add nor detract from the scene at hand. The real-life interruptions by Wesli as the “director” unhappy with the way the scenes are moving are almost a relief from what the audience has just listened to. The fact that an entire town anxiously awaits each new episode is somewhat unbelievable unless they are truly desperate for diversion.
Bossert is also credited for scenic, lighting and sound design as well. Kudos to him for the spot-on 50’s style living room with its garish color scheme, but as successful as that space is, the plain black space assigned to the scenes at the television station only draws more attention to how innocuous the play-within-the- play content truly is. The lighting design adequately captures what is needed for the changes in locale and is underlined by a sound design reminiscent of early television melodrama, the lack of a requisite theremin notwithstanding. Yolanda Balaña’s costume design is faithful to 1959 although the audience yearns for more period ensembles at least for the women to get a proper feel for the era.
Some of the more provocative moments in the play do happen in the television studio, though, primarily in Lionel’s talk show. Profiling upstanding members of their Avondale community provides an awkward moment when a Korean war veteran who is now a crop duster pilot refers to what he did in the war as not being that far off from what he is now paid to do – kill insects. Lionel trips over his own tongue in trying to forge some damage control. For lack of an in-studio audience, Lionel encourages letter writing. One letter writer tries to get a rise out of him by asking where he stands with regard to the now prevalent Muslim brotherhood. Very much of the period, we see how perceived racism was ignored or glossed over. When Billy is invited to explain how he crafts his television dramas, it becomes a soapbox for how little respect he has for his father. This ultimately leads to an accusation of how comfortable his father is with murder. Here again Lionel must try to salvage what is left of his offended audience.
For the most part Television entertains and sheds light on what the early days of television programming must have looked like sans big Hollywood studio production values. The actors provide solid performances, though Ms. Godfrey Barule and Mr. Underwood would have greatly benefitted from stronger direction and more interesting dialogue in their “play acting” scenes.
Television (through April 22, 2023)
the wild project, 195 East 3rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thirdwing.info
Running time: two hours including one intermission
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