The Dead Guy

[This review appeared in Variety the week of September 11th.]

We all knew it was coming. We saw it in the debate over closed-circuit TV executions. From the original cheeky British home makeovers to the consummately American Survivor series, there was only one place all this could go: the insatiable voyeurism of consumer culture would never be satisfied until it had witnessed the ultimate Reality TV event-a staged death. After all, as National Geographic put it in 1997 in its two-part glorification of Imperial Rome, "Their story is our story," and didn't they feed Christians to the lions for amusement?

Thankfully, we've been saved, if only temporarily, from this disgraceful exhibition by up-and-coming playwright Eric Coble (Bright Ideas), who has pre-empted the network vultures with The Dead Guy, being given its world premiere by Denver's Curious Theatre Company.

Photo of Elizabeth Rainer as Gina and Todd Webster as Eldon
Elizabeth Rainer as Gina
and Todd Webster as Eldon
Photo: Michael Ensminger
On a pastel-tinged backlit set, framed by six live television monitors fed by a wireless transmitter from videographer's hand-held camera, Leadville, USA nobody, Eldon Phelps, hears the pitch from Gina Yaweth, a ruthless producer with a track record in a genre defined by the depths participants will grovel for a buck.

As the barroom seduction begins, Eldon deludes himself into thinking that Gina's interest in him is romantic, and scrambles to defuse the rumors about his hapless life that he hopes she hasn't heard. But Gina's way ahead of him: Eldon is the consummate loser she's been looking for, and she knows exactly how to turn the screws.

"What is it that you want to do with your life?" she asks, knowing full well that a new pickup truck and reconciliation with his girlfriend are as far as Eldon's vision of the future extends.

When she offers him $1 million on the condition that he spends it in a week, he's skeptical; but after she lays out her broadcasting credentials, he jumps at the bait. Only then is the hook revealed: "At the end of the week, you die!"

Jolted into fight or flight syndrome, Eldon tries to extricate himself, but Gina reels him in with hard doses of reality. "You're at a dead end," she tells him. "It's not going to get any better than this. You can go out as a supernova!"

Forced to weigh the sorry state of his life against the glory of notoriety, Eldon leaps into Gina's net. "It has to be next week," she says, "while we're still in sweeps."

Plausable? You bet! Every day conscienceless U.S. military recruiters hoodwink clueless, down-and-out youth into far worse deals, such as college tuition in trade for their lives in Iraq.

The countdown begins, and helmer Chip Walton sets a snappy pace with his versatile cast.

Photo of Dee Covington as hooker, Todd Webster as Eldon, and Jessica Austgen as hooker
Dee Covington as hooker,
Todd Webster as Eldon,
and Jessica Austgen as hooker
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Though nobility is out of reach, company regular Todd Webster, as Eldon, brings everyman qualities to a small town schlub, as the hapless comedic hero's sense of impending doom leads him on a bipolar quest from unbridled consumption of cars and jewelry to charitable options, from romantic rejection to Disneyland hookers, and through familial outrage to insider opportunism.

Photo of Elizabeth Rainer as Gina
Elizabeth Rainer as Gina
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Switching from Hollywood slang to the false intimacy and pseudo-credible tones of British tabloid journalism as soon as the camera tally-light signal appears for the commercial bumpers, Elizabeth Rainer sets a duplicitous standard for Gina worthy of Iago, at once encouraging Eldon to make something of himself, in the little time he has left, while rapturously following the promising Nielson overnight ratings and the career-enhancing possibilities of Variety headlines that blare, "Dead Guy Buries Competition Alive."

Photo of Jessica Austgen as Christy and Todd Webster as Eldon
Jessica Austgen as Christy
and Todd Webster as Eldon
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Only Eldon's dumpy mom, Roberta, his half-wit brother, Virgil, and his ex-girlfriend, Christy, seem capable of raising any objections, hoping to avoid the shame by association they face from the paparazzi who have turned their two-lane backwater into the Coliseum, surrounded by news helicopters, video transmission trucks, souvenir vendors, cheerleaders, and protesters. All that's missing is a call from Caligula.

Photo of Bryon Matsuno as Dougie and Dee Covington as Roberta
Bryon Matsuno as Dougie and
Dee Covington as Roberta
Photo: Michael Ensminger
But like the decadent Romans who suffered from lead-poisoned aqueducts, each of Eldon's closest Leadville relations fall victim to their own mad desires. After initially declaring her disgust for Eldon's plan, and admonishing him while vigorously tugging his ear every time she visits, Dee Covington, as the mom, does such a stunning turnabout—after considering the proceeds she could reap from a self-help book for other mothers suffering the same woeful fate—even Donald Trump would have applauded.

As the title cards on the monitors count down the week, marking off the daily video vérité segments, Coble builds on the natural drama of a draining hourglass by contrasting Eldon's increasingly poignant realizations about the value and beauty of life with Gina's death row narration describing the means by which our money grubber-of-the-week will die.

The moment of truth finally arrives with the tabulation of the audience's preferences for the manner in which they wish to see Eldon die, and in an inspired script change arrived at collaboratively with the company, Coble delivers his coup de grâce, leaving no doubt about the price we pay for serving the wrong master.

Curious Theatre Company's world premiere of Eric Coble's black comedy The Dead Guy runs through October 15th. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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