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Theater Review: The Big Broadcast on East 53rd

by Photo of Paul Hansen

‘Fake news’ takes center stage

Theater Review:  The Big Broadcast on East 53rd

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  The quote has been attributed to Mark Twain in response to premature news of his demise.  The quote is equally applicable to the lead character in the new comedy The Big Broadcast on East 53 rd by Dick Brukenfeld.          

Set in 1983, the play opens up in an East 53rd Street apartment in Manhattan where Penny Talley (Kate Loprest) is perusing The New York Times where she stumbles upon an obituary of her husband,  Ray.  Ray, however, is still very much alive and soon makes his entrance into the apartment. 

Penny and Ray relocated from Florida where Ray abandoned his career as a sportscaster to pursue a career on Wall Street which he finds unfulfilling. He wants to return to Florida and sportscasting.  He misses his former profession so much that he occasionally pulls out a fake microphone from his jacket, as if giving a broadcast (hence the title of the play). Like Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show,  Ray has difficulty leaving his newscaster persona behind at the studio.

Despite the fact that her husband is standing right in front of her,  Penny refuses to believe that he is not dead.  She has something of an incentive in his "demise",  as she rather likes life in New York and is adamant about not returning to Florida. 

An absurdist atmosphere soon sets in, as other characters appear who also have a stake in Ray's departure underground.  Among these are his brother who is plotting a political career and believes he can capitalize off of a big funeral commemorating Ray's passing.  An undertaker is called, funeral arrangements begin to be planned.    Finally a decision is made to take the matter to The New York Times,  the paper of record, to determine if Ray has really passed.    Despite Ray's physical and very alive presence in the Times editor's office,  the matter seems to defy easy resolution.

While watching the show I was reminded of surrealist literature such as Gogol's "The Nose" or Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis."  I don't think that either work - about a man who loses his nose and goes in search of it, and a man who turns into a bug - is meant to be taken literally.   But absurdity and surrealism, - like a good Twilight Zone episode - can open up new pathways to thinking about and examining issues.   

And the comedy  (and despite some morbid overtones,  it is largely a comedy) addresses a number of topical issues, including obviously  “fake news.”   The play also raises - directly or indirectly - the questions of how reality and truth are determined and what level of deference should be paid to large and prominent news organizations. 

The surrealistic atmosphere of the show is implied even before the play begins from the sets by Atkin Pace.  Act I consists of what appears to be a normal living room, except that there are architectural designs for an apartment imprinted at bizarre angles on the walls, implying the off-kilter atmosphere that is to come.

With the exception of the opening dialogue between Penny and Ray which I thought may have run a little too long,  the pacing of the play is quite good, with each of the other four remaining characters being introduced at strategic and well-timed moments.  John Patrick Hayden as Ray brings a lot of high energy to the show and functions almost literally as its anchor.  The exasperated chemistry between Ray and Loprest as his wife is quite believable, and JoAnna Rhinehart has a nice turn as an officious Times obituary editor.   Spirited direction was provided by Charles Maryan.   

Anyone who watches The Big Broadcast with a literalist mind set will probably be confused,  perhaps even frustrated.  But for those who are willing to enter into its zany and zesty surrealistic atmosphere,  it should be an entertaining and thought provoking night at the theater.    

The Big Broadcast on East 53rd  is playing through February 25 at TBG  Theatre located at 312 West 36th St., Third Floor.  Tickets are  $18 ($15 for students and seniors).  

On the way down the elevator after the performance,  I overheard a number of audience members state how much they enjoyed the show.  One of them said, “It’s very funny.” That news isn’t fake.      

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