There is a lot to be said about the effect television has had on our lives since its invention more than 50 years ago—the way people's sedentary lives have increasingly come to revolve around an electronic box as a way not to expand but to escape their own universe. Kevin Mandel tries, I believe, to address the pros and cons and, most of all, the power of television in his absurdist comedy A New Television Arrives, Finally, but the message gets muddled along the way. Television gets in trouble right from the start. Mandel's play is too vague for its own good, opening with Man (Bryan Fenkart) alone during the daytime in a bathrobe at his apartment. For some unknown reason, he has been faking that he's sick to stay away from work and from his fiancée, Woman (Kate Russell). His old television has apparently broken down, so he has ordered a new one.
But the new television that arrives takes an odd form, that of actor Tom Pelphrey (who alternates this role with Victor Villar-Hauser). Pelphrey, cloaked in a wild red suit (courtesy of costume designer Rebecca Lustig) that resembles an outfit the Joker might have relished, enters and immediately dominates Man's apartment, marching around, dropping vases out the window, and making all sorts of accusations about the tenant's empty, disappointed life.
Television first holds Man in his sway and then does the same once Woman arrives. The two are mesmerized by the new appliance's philosophies of life and its understanding about what each of them needs to be happy. Eventually, Television's urgings get darker, pushing both characters to question more about their lives and essentially making them his hostages.
But Mandel never provides enough background about the lives of Man and Woman—what were they like when they were happier, and how did they get unhappy in the first place?—and the audience is left to accept Television's assessments of their lives based not on any evidence but just on principle. Furthermore, once Television gets Man and Woman in his thrall, the stakes don't really escalate as much as meander until the play's end. Mandel seems to suggest that people have surrendered too much of the power in their lives to television and need to take control, but he never builds on that assertion.
The play's ambiguity also raises questions about the basic construct of Television himself. Is he really supposed to be a talking TV set? Or is he ultimately a man? Why does Man so readily welcome him into his apartment? Several unconvincing twists in the last scenes suggest that Television might have an agenda of his own behind the havoc he wreaks on Man and Woman, but the audience never figures out what that might be.
Nonetheless, director Kevin Kittle maintains the right amount of momentum to keep the play going too fast for any holes in logic to emerge. He blocks the characters in constant circles so they are in constant motion, yet going nowhere. This is an effective touch in terms of characterization, but it is problematic in terms of narrative: a play really should have some direction.
Pelphrey, an Emmy winner for his work on Guiding Light, is certainly volcanic as Television, delivering long, obtuse monologues with aplomb. His passion drives every scene, as it must. Television certainly wouldn't work if he didn't appear be pulling the strings at every moment. Mandel really seems to be enamored with this character and seems to disdain Man and Woman; they are both milquetoasts who are unable to articulate what has gotten them in such a rut.
The result is that Fenkart and Russell are left to their own devices to create both back story and sympathy for their characters, but Mandel makes that mission impossible. Since they are essentially playing an Everyman and Everywoman, too many specifics, he apparently feels, would blur his point.
Still, Fenkart and Russell are appealing actors with a strong presence, and they adequately express the surreal humor. It's just that when the laughter subsides, we are left with nary a clue as to what to make of this play.