At first we can't name the protagonist in Richard Greenberg's "Night and Her Stars," directed with pitch perfect precision by Matt Anderson for The Garage Theatre In Collision With Alive Theatre. It could be Dan Enright (Robert Edward) and Martin Freedman (Joe Howells). They're co-producers of the real life "Twenty One," a late-50s quiz show. It could be either of the show's two best-known contestants. Herbert Stempel (Anthony Galleran) is churlish, savant if not idiotic, and an aspiring actor. Charles Van Doren (Sumner Leveque) is a Columbia professor, scion of a fabled literary family. For various reasons, each in itself fascinating, the four conspire to rig the show.
But no, the protagonist for the show is the medium itself of live TV. Enright says as much at the beginning. He decides that TV, then its baby years, needs a hero. The problem is, TV, unlike live theatre and cinema, doesn't promote, much less attract, heroes. Nor does it provide a script, literary or otherwise. We see contestants as they sweat, stammer, fidget...and fail. Network executives, advertisers and the public want telegenic, charismatic winners. Enright feeds Sempel with the scripted answers. Soon, ratings level off. Enright replaces him with the more palpable Van Doren. (FYI: if you've ever wondered the difference between a nerd and a geek, look no further than Galleran's Stempel and Leveque's Van Doren). That requires another rigging. This time Stempel had to lose so that Van Doren can win.
The story, though, is not about the rigging, the cover up, the investigations and indictments. It's about how TV, small-screen, black and white, peopled with just plain folk and not trained actors, can not be a heroic medium without some kind of doctoring. One could argue that, in the past 60 years, only the TV monitor size, color enhancement, and resolution have changed.
The thing's well staged. It presents three simultaneous points of view. There's the boozy and conniving back stage office drama. There's the polished live TV show. And, projected on the Theatre's floor, is the video projection of what we see on TV. The video projection makes contestants even more pale, wan, and nervous than they really are.
The performances are grand. You can almost hear Anderson tell the cast to keep it real. The story features some lulus of characters. Any one of them could have been played to comic effect. But the story, if it's meant to be believed, can't be played funny. It has to be played for keeps. It's only when we how serious these characters are that we can laugh at the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Making contestants of a live TV quiz show seem heroic? It's like putting lipstick on a pig. That, incidentally, provides a nice arc from late 50s quiz shows to, oh, I don't know, reality shows like "Keeping up with the Kardashians."
And so, in perfect synch, the ensemble effort rocks. Julian's Barry fronts an outlandishly, adorably, and extravagantly clueless host. Galleran's Herbert smolders on the verge of going postal. Leveque's All American know-it-all Van Doren suffers an existential crisis. Because he's a Van Doren, it would be a Nietzsche one, not a Reader's Digest one. And Edward's Enright is smarmy, Teflonesque, and Machiavellian.
There's another hint that the production's about the medium of TV. A chastened Van Doren goes home to visit his Homeric father Mark (Stephen Alkus). They wonder what life was like before TV. The show ends, sweetly if not a little sadly, with the two of them outside, not in front of a miniature, black and white screen. The father teaches the son the names of the trees on his property.
Performances are 8pm, Thursday through Saturday. The show runs until June 28. Tickets are $15 - $18. The Theatre is located at 251 E. Seventh Street, Long Beach, 90802. For more information call (562) 433-8337 or visit thegaragetheatre.org.