The Idiot Box inspires laughter and thought

Once the canned laughter filling in all the funny (and not-so-funny) jokes disappeared from the background noise of The Idiot Box, something clicked. The play, originally by playwright and screenwriter Michael Elynow, produced a revelation among audience members. Amid the pregnant pause of expectance, both the characters and the audience realized that the “reality” in which they had existed was simply a carefully crafted, false universe and that it was time to face the terrifying real world. That poignant moment of silence perfectly encapsulated the message behind The Idiot Box.

The production, which ran Monday through Saturday in the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theatre of the Purnell Center, was co-directed by junior directing major Alex Tobey and Pittsburgh guest director Tami Dixon as a part of the Junior Performance Projects series. According to the show note, written by sophomore dramaturgy major Holly Dennis, The Idiot Box is meant to examine reality in a modern context — and what better way to do that than through America’s obsession with TV?

The show is centered on the cast of a sitcom called Pals, a close imitation of the iconic show Friends. During the play, the characters go from living a perfectly ordinary existence to one fraught with drama. All of the sudden, the corny jokes go away, and instead of dealing with an untrained puppy, they find themselves grappling with issues such as messy breakups, divorce, coming out, and depression. Their lives become complicated and unplanned, and they must learn to cope with it.

The small cast of this play was composed of junior acting majors: Chloe (Colleen Pulawksi), a romance writer with writer’s block; Connor (Jeremy Hois), her doting husband; Billy (Luke LaMontagne), a sex-crazed, funny man; Fiona (Olivia Brown), a bubbly blonde; and Mark (Benjamin Edelman), the straight-edged owner of the apartment.

The cast blended perfectly, staying in character through both the lighthearted sitcom moments and the dramatic, heart-pounding ones. Their perfect chemistry made viewers feel as though they were watching a scripted, orchestrated television show, until the world fell apart and the characters became real.

The show was smart and witty, not to mention painfully poignant. In a moment toward the end, when the characters are realizing with horror what dealing with the real world has done to them, Mark sits down
with Chloe, who is resisting the return to normalcy. In order to convince her to forget Omar (Mitchell Edwards) — the dashing stranger with whom she has fallen in love and has made plans to escape — Mark describes his harrowing experience as a medic during 9/11. Seeing how Elyanow wrote the play in response to the media’s unresponsive attitude toward the crisis, it seemed appropriate for the show to close on such a somber note.

In essence, the cast and context of the show — eight friends, eight rooms, one big penthouse in the Big Apple — represented the carefully protected and forced innocence of Americans. When that naivety and blindness is shattered, the characters are tossed into crisis mode and are forced to come to terms with reality by discovering that their canned world is an illusion.

Through Dixon’s careful planning and design choices — from having the cast pose as if in an opening scene to introducing a theme song for Pals that closely resembles that of Friends — the message of the play is clearly conveyed, despite the risk of it getting lost in the many details of the plot. The entire cast and crew of the play should be applauded for creating a believable and meaningful play within a play scenario that resonated even after the lights went down.