Television: miraculous invention or mind-numbing instrument? Whether you love it or hate it, TV isn't going anywhere. (Indeed, it's hard to believe that the unrelenting barrage of reality shows will ever stop.) Critics of television tend to focus on how the media desensitize people to serious topics (war, world hunger), for when you can simply change a channel to something more cheerful, how can anyone ever be expected to invest in anything real? Reality—and our perception of it—is the focus of Alex De Witt's Prime Time, which attempts to eviscerate the false sense of security that is created when one lives in the suburbs and watches the world from the safety of a cozy living room. This would-be comedy falls short of its noble goal, however, and its razor-sharp critique is dulled by an incoherent script, lackluster direction, and tepid performances.
It all starts off well enough, as we are presented with a "normal" middle-class living room in the suburbs of Detroit. Wealthy John Ball, his pretty wife Helen, and their two young children live an idyllic life far beyond the reaches of social ills like racism and poverty, which they see only through their television screen. Or rather, which they don't see, since they have the option of turning the channel when things get too harsh for their tender hearts.
When a female face appears over the static on the huge television screen, she informs John that never in history has there been "such a divide between the haves and the have-nots." She explains that what he has is a "luxury"—the luxury to worry about anything other than mere survival.
In the next scene, the same woman appears onstage as John's long-lost sister Sarafina. Obviously pregnant, she shows up at the house late one night with her boyfriend Carl in tow. She explains that she is trying to straighten out her life and wants a place to stay for a while. Carl, we learn, is a member of a gang in Detroit, and the next morning reality (in the form of three gang members out to seek revenge against Carl) explodes into John and Helen's home.
"This is just like on TV," Helen comments flatly as one of the men draws a gun. Although her script is obviously meant to eschew naturalism, De Witt has drawn characters that are overwhelmingly—and uselessly—two-dimensional. And without a structure taut enough to illuminate their faults, the characters simply fall flat when they might have been used to illustrate more compelling truths.
For example, as two stagehands appear between scenes to rearrange the set and comment on the action, their ideas—inexplicably—seem to influence the plot. When they fantasize about violence, the following scene feels like an homage to Quentin Tarantino films, but it's violence filled with gratuitous expletives and racial stereotypes.
Even more troubling is when the stagehands fantasize about two women being intimate, and Helen and Sarafina enter for an erotic scene on a kitchen table. While in theory this is likely meant to point out the ridiculousness of such audience-pleasing conventions, De Witt's elementary critique only objectifies the women further, adding to the problem rather than attempting to abate it. (A moment of unnecessary nudity by one of the actors—also the playwright—only furthers the confusion.)
Still, every so often a character says something interesting. "I want to live my life, not watch everyone else's," John announces. And Helen despairs that her life "looks like a Hallmark card commercial, but it doesn't feel like a Hallmark card commercial." Unfortunately, these statements are not investigated to any satisfying depth. Instead, they are muffled by—among other profundities—Sarafina's explanation that "in the dark, they're all the same," as she confides in Helen about her sexual relationship with Carl.
Fern R. Lopez's direction locates and maintains a stagnant tempo throughout the production, and Josh Zangen's spare set is functional, if rather confusing. (Why, oh why, in an obviously middle-class home, would the TV set sit directly on the floor?) Lighting designer Jennifer Schriever gives the production its most professional touch, and the lights of the television flicker with an attention to detail that is largely missing elsewhere.
The recent surge of reality TV has prompted many to consider television's potential to represent a coherent reality, leading to thoughtful debate and critique of a media outlet that, at its best, can both entertain and inform. But instead of encouraging us to consider how we might improve this reality, Prime Time is only further confirmation of how misguided we can be.