‘The Dead Guy’ by Eric Coble
By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: [l to r] Christopher Hahn as Eldon and Amy Askins as Gina during a dress rehearsal of “The Dead Guy” at the Dayton Theatre Guild; photo: Peter Wine/MediaMoments.com
How would you feel about a reality show with a million dollar bonus, but the ultimate cost of life at week’s end? Think about just how far a reality show will go and what it takes these days to earn a big TV rating.
Spend the money without rules. Allow a cameraman to follow every move. At the end of the week, TV viewers get to vote. They will decide how the millionaire dies; not if, but by what fatal option.
Opening night audience comments at intermission reflected variety, but all were caught up in the premise and most were discussing the plot. “Will he really die?” “I’ve never watched a reality show, and this is proving how silly it can be.” “Is she Faust, because he’s certainly made a pact with the devil.” “It’s dark!” “Well, I love it that the Guild tries unusual things.”
Lobby chatter consistently praised the actors’ skills.
With beguiling skill and physical comedy, Chris Hahn plays Eldon, the hapless young loser. It doesn’t take much thought for him to accept the offer.
“At first I had a preconceived image of Eldon as one-dimensional dumb, but I’ve worked hard with the director to find the layers of the character and the stages of grief as Eldon finally begins to realize his humanity,” Hahn said.
The effort has paid off. As the two-act play progresses, Hahn does imbue Eldon with a growing sense of the meaning of life. Money really doesn’t buy respect or satisfaction.
Behind this desperate attempt to preserve her own job is the character Gina, a producer played by Amy Askins. She’s snarky, she’s sweet, she’s conniving and motivated by ratings and coffee. Askins talked about reflecting her own Meisner training and about being in the moment on stage. Both she and Hahn commented separately on how much fun they had working in rehearsal and discovering subtleties in their characters. That each has managed to bring insight to the self-focused Gina and Eldon is remarkable, given the blast-off nature of the script.
Eldon has a sort-of girlfriend, Christy, played by Angela Timpone. She brings a fine scorn to rejecting Eldon’s proposal and ring. As the end of the week approaches, she finds another side to the character, a genuine softness and affection.
Mom, Roberta, energized by Teresa Connair, is the proverbial apple tree role model for Eldon’s needy narcissistic replica. Only when the end is near does she think about him, although she’s never had a bit of trouble accepting his gift of a gaudy gold necklace or bragging on TV. She is totally convincing with a combination of self-pity and cold calculation.
Eldon’s brother Virgil is played by Aaron Brewer, and acts as the counterpoint to the rest of the family – diligent, wimpy and generous. He does a fine job. It takes a lot of work to be that quietly passionless. Eldon has never understood him, and it’s not clear if Mom even knows him, unless he can provide something she wants.
Recording everything is Dougie the videographer – played by K. L. Storer – who provides an acerbic, world-weary view. He is also the actual technical designer of this challenging setup the Theatre Guild has undertaken. He and director Caplan talked about the complexity and expense.
According to Storer, production meetings began last September as specific problems such as the use of cables or wireless equipment were considered, or whether a live feed of Dougie’s work was possible. The ultimate final scene is live for each performance. Storer has poured his heart into making the equipment a major character.
The Guild purchased two 50-inch TVs for the show. One will be raffled off at very reasonable ticket cost, one for $5; three for $10; seven for $20; drawing after the final performance. You don’t have to be present to win.
Carly Risenhoover-Peterson and Jenna Burnette are clearly having a good time with the variety of parts, including colorful prostitutes at Disneyland. Timothy Moore and Wayne Wolfe competently complete the cast.
Producer Debra Kent and the entire production crew deserve individual applause: Set Design by Jeff Sams, Light Design by Derek Dunavent, Costume Design by Linda Sellers, Video Consultant is Greg Nichols. Doing heroic and accurate work in the booth are technicians Scott Wright on lights, Janna Ross on sound and Phil Weidenheft on video.
Playwright Eric Coble is a rising and apparently prolific young playwright, presently with the Playwrights’ Unit of the Cleveland Play House. His starring vehicle for Estelle Parsons, “The Velocity of Autumn” just ended a short Broadway run.
Director Caplan has made sure the pace of his off-center take on the reality show genre reflects the desperation pushing the characters. At the same time, he assures the audience it’s a comedy and laughter is encouraged.
“What’s the cost of a human life?” he asks. “What do people consider entertainment? The concept is bound to give pause, or perhaps a severe chill. See how it ends. What do you think?”
The Dayton Theatre Guild presents “The Dead Guy” by Eric Coble through Sunday, June 15. For reservations and more information, please call 937.278.5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org.
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.