In 2000 Rob Ackerman made an impressive debut with Tabletop, a play about the cutthroat world of television commercials. Centered around a dictatorial director hell-bent on the perfect close-up of a fruit drink topped with a swirl, the play raised a number of issues about art, commerce, and workplace politics. Ackerman’s newest work, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, in an excellent production by Working Theater, serves as a companion piece to Tabletop. Also set in a television-commercial sound studio, Gumballs satirically reveals the moral compromises individuals make when confronted with artistic, economic, or personal intimidation.
Based on the production of an actual commercial, the play begins with two crew members, Ken (Dean Nolen) and his chatty assistant Rob (George Hampe), putting the finishing touches on a special contraption for an AT&T advertisement. Jenny (Reyna de Courcy) is the props person, and she is responsible for making sure it is filled with pristine red gumballs. Their significance is (partially) clarified in an exchange between Jenny and the commercial’s harried assistant director, Alice (Ann Harada as a no-nonsense professional and a beleaguered single mother):
Alice: Verizon shows you a map with like a billion red dots. Each of the dots is s’posta to mean they’ve got a cell tower or something. And our gumballs are their dots.
Jenny: So the gumballs are like dropped calls?
Alice: No, they’re calls that can never happen, because Verizon’s lying.
Jenny: Oh, so, the gumballs are a metaphor for lies?
Alice: Yeah, I guess. Except they don’t stick. They start to fall down.
Apart from their convoluted metaphorical implications, the gumballs, which have the hardness of golf balls, pose a manifest work hazard. The commercial’s script calls for 500 to be dropped on actor Luke Wilson (Jonathan Sale) with just an umbrella for protection. It is a simple but dazzling effect, comprising just a small risk of danger.
During one of the takes, Ron accidentally pelts the actor with a handful of gumballs, and the commercial’s director, Errol Morris (a suitably sinister David Wohl), takes sadistic glee. As presented here, the real-life documentary filmmaker is a Machiavellian figure who regards actors as “sissies, babies, infants,” whose safety is of little concern. Describing his work on The Fog of War, Morris explains:
Art is not safe. Was Robert McNamara safe? I had him on the ropes, I made him cry for Chrissake. I wanna see fear and death and hate in my movies, all my movies. Because that’s the truth and I tell the truth, even in an AT&T commercial.
Concussion be damned, Morris decrees dispensing with the umbrella, and his mandate lets loose a host of ethical quandaries: How far must an actor go to give the best performance? To what extent should a worker be complicit in a supervisor’s dangerous whims? What principled concessions can artists make in order to protect their careers and reputations? The questions hurtle around like ricocheting gumballs in the sound studio, which has been meticulously recreated, complete with a chroma green wall, by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader.
In her directorial debut, playwright Theresa Rebeck deftly balances the comic lunacy with the play’s mounting moral stakes. Rebeck and the performers effectively mine the laughs from the ludicrous circumstances without overselling the characters’ quirkiness. Sale, for instance, is endearing as the daft, egotistical, and pastry-gorging Luke Wilson, whose star is on the wane as his waistline expands. As the hapless and innocent workers, Hampe and de Courcy provide the right amount of starstruck, celebrity fawning. And Nolen grounds the play with his appropriate sense of detachment as a diligent and dutiful worker.
Although taking place in the television world, Gumballs is notably theatrical. It includes fourth-wall breaking monologues, flashbacks indicated by lighting effects (impressively designed by Mary Ellen Stebbins), quick costume changes (cleverly executed by Tricia Barsamian), and some technological wizardry (Bart Fasbender designed the sound, and Yana Biryukova designed the video). Of course, for a play, which is about props, credit must be given to Addison Heeren, who is responsible for those hundreds of titular gumballs.
At 75 minutes, Ackerman’s play is rather sketch-like. The characters, although based on (mostly) actual people, are cartoonish. Further character development and more complex situations might give Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson more dramaturgical heft. Still, even if the play does not rise to the level of profundity, in its philosophical pursuits, there is a good deal to chew on.
Working Theater’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson plays through July 6 at A.R.T./ New York Theatre’s Mezzanine Theatre (502 W. 53rd St., between 10th and 11th Avenues). Evening preformances are at 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays, excepting June 22. Tickets are $40 (reserved), $30 (general admission), and $25 (student/seniors), and may be purchased by calling Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting theworkingtheater.org.