Trial by Fire

By Dale Johnson
Directed by Linda Burson
Playful Theatre Productions
Phil Bosakowski Theatre
354 West 45th Street (279-4200)
Equity showcase (closes June 26)
Review by Sheila Mart

Trial By Fire is a scathing condemnation of the press (specifically the TV news media) in their daily handling of life-threatening situations. The set-up chosen by Mr. Johnson (an accomplished television writer) is that of an embittered out-of-work telephone lineman, Jack Brewer, who has barricaded himself in his home in "Typical City, USA." He has taken a neighbor, Edna Patterson, hostage, and convinces her that he is just playing a game to make a point. Edna is a willing accomplice -- until Jack starts shooting at cars out of the windows. Needless to say, Jack soon draws the attention he sought - police, FBI, etc. He then successfully demands that Ted Stephenson (a famous network news reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner) be brought in, in exchange for his releasing Edna.

What follows is a hysterically manic diatribe against modern news reporting, particularly by television. Jack's bitterness stems from the recent loss of his wife, and especially his daughter, in a fire. Ted was also the reporter on the scene of that tragic fire, and Jack abuses his captive, mentally and physically - he has a shotgun and pistol - for not doing anything to save them. The inevitable conclusion follows a predictable television movie-of-the-week pattern. (There is also a scathing comment on TV news coverage of tragedies, personalized by a glamorous Hollywood representative [Darella Stevens] who appears to offer all kinds of financial deals for Jack's story. The fact that Jack seriously considers these offers says something about our society's sensibilities.)

While this well-written piece reflects a valid comment on the blurring of priorities of life, tragedy, and entertainment in today's society, it was done through the medium of television and therefore belongs on television, not in the theatre. It is not a play; it is a teleplay. The old conceits of the film-within-a-film and the play-within-a-play work because they stay within the same medium. This production's multimedia style, with its constant interruptions of "news broadcasts" through two television monitors on either side of the audience, detracted from the dramatic flow of the stage presentation.

The performances were admirable, notably Van Creely (Brewer), who, although too one-note at times, was able to show some effective modulation at others. Eric Leffler (Ted) gave a consummate performance, showing that reporters are human - in other words, don't shoot the messenger.

The female characters got the short end of the stick (not unusual in teleplays), but their performances were certainly fitting. Cynthia Klaja-McLaughlin (Darella Stevens), "over the top" in her presentation, was right on, though the mystery of how she broke into the barricaded house was never clarified. Kathy Lee Hart (Edna Patterson), your typical blue-collar not-too-swift ex-wife, gave the perfect tone to the role. Jacqueline Macario (Kate the glamorous TV news reporter) and Noel Robichaux (Howard) made the most of stereotype roles.

The direction by Linda Burson was effective and sensitive, except in Jack's most volatile scene, which need cutting - and there the fault may be in the writing.

Danielle Linares's set was perfect, as was Carolyn Sarkis's lighting.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1999 Sheila Mart