Oct. 12 2011 12:00 AM

‘The Dead Guy’ is a spotty spoof of reality TV

Playwright Eric Coble presumably does not understand why people watch reality television.

If he did, “The Dead Guy,” now at
Williamston Theatre, might be a sharper satire in the vein of “Network”
or “The Truman Show.” But the show’s very concept suggests that Coble
cannot appreciate his topic on its own terms, resulting in flawed
premises and shallow characters that make “Guy” feel cynical instead of
comically cerebral.

To be fair, Coble’s criticism of the
American desire for notoriety — however fleeting or destructive —
stings with truth. “Guy” extrapolates Andy Warhol’s dire prediction of
momentary fame to its darkest limit, supposing that rudderless people
would accept enormous cash and camera time in exchange for their
untimely death. Why not?

However, from a viewer perspective,
Coble’s argument hinges on three fallacious assumptions: 1) that people
would watch reality television if they knew how it would end or who
would win; 2) that people have become so bloodthirsty that they would
knowingly participate in a televised murder; and 3) that they would
knowingly murder a television personality that they had grown to love.
Each possible, but highly improbable.

Set somewhere between present-day and
the near-future, “Guy” finds network executive Gina Yaweth (Robin
Lewis-Bedz) in need of a new ratings hit. Her previous show, “Heavy
Petting,” about ordinary people attempting to tame wild beasts, bombed.
Despite audience’s disgust with gimmicky grisliness, Yaweth’s next
pitch entails following a hapless schmo spend $1 million in one week
before perishing (literally) at the whim of the viewing public. Eldon
Phelps (Chris Korte) is that schmo (or rather the sucker) whom Yaweth
deviously manipulates. When Eldon’s initial spending plans
disintegrate, he is forced to examine his real priorities before time
runs out.

As a show within a show, “Guy” instantly
conjures up the ludicrous spectacles like “Fear Factor,” in which
average souls subject themselves to humiliations as entertainment. A
cameraman (Eric Eilersen) films Eldon’s every move like a one-man
“Jersey Shore,” but unlike its drama-driven counterparts, Gina
curiously steers Eldon away from troublemaking activities like bringing
hookers into Disneyland. In this reality show, positive role models,
not unhinged narcissists, drive ratings.

As the show’s producer, Gina’s arc
easily parallels Faye Dunaway’s career-driven sociopath in “Network” or
Ed Harris’ god-like figure in “The Truman Show.” Lewis-Bedz gleefully
provides Gina with devilish charm to back up her manipulative pleas.
Gina’s doing Eldon a favor, after all. Korte conversely shows little
charm and few likeable features that would make him a high-profile
reality show star.

As cameraman Dougie, Eilersen remains
humorously aloof while supplying his occasional zingers with requisite
dryness. Fellow Michigan State University students Ian Page and
Michelle Serje bring believable motivation to a variety of characters,
as does Williamston managing director Chris Purchis as Eldon’s mother.

The show’s strongest elements are the
background and extra features. Zac Campbell’s scenic design, including
scaffolding, exposed stage lights and six TVs gives “Guy” the ominous
ambiance of timeless media critiques from the 1980s, like the
short-lived but influential “Max Headroom.” But the televisions are not
just stagnant props. Dougie’s camera actually works, allowing live
shots to be integrated and displayed on the monitors. Furthermore,
media designer B. Emil Boulos’ faux ads selling the spirit of
conspicuous consumerism or a hilariously powerful sleep aid known as
Nocturna provide spot-on comic relief. 

Despite crisp pacing from director Tony
Caselli and always top-notch lighting and sound design from Genesis
Garza and Peter Martino, respectively, “Guy” suffers under Coble’s
bleak assessment of human behavior, which gives audiences a
self-righteous slap instead of an emotional punch.

‘The Dead Guy’

Williamston Theatre

122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston

Through Oct. 30

8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$25 Friday and Saturday evenings; $22 Saturday matinees and Sundays; $20 Thursdays; $10 students; $2 off for seniors 65 and over

(517) 655-7469