The Duke University Department of Theater Studies and Manbites Dog Theater’s zesty world premiere of Durham playwright Neal C. Bell’s Now You See Me, which concludes its two-week run on March 23-26, is a savage satire of Reality TV’s insidious invasion of the most intimate moments of its subjects’ private lives. Bell’s fictional television series, called “Final Battle,” is tailored to the viewing tastes of the type of people who stop to rubberneck at automobile accidents and airplane crashes.
When the curtain rises on Sonya Leigh Drum’s splendidly imagined combo apartment/doctor’s office/TV production office/etc. set, an eccentric and somewhat reclusive middle-aged woman named Claire (Rachel Klem) is reeling from the announcement by her empathetic but matter-of-fact doctor (Tony Perucci) that her biopsy results show that she has lung cancer. It is little wonder that she talks to her TV set (J Evarts) — which talks back! The only good news is that she’s now a candidate for “Final Battle,” which uses a cameraman (Jennifer Evans) and hidden cameras to follow four cancer patients as they try four untested new drugs while they “do not go gently into that good night,” as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas would say.
Common Ground Theatre managing director and Transactors Improv Company member Rachel Klem is a very funny lady, but she gets to be a straight woman to the sassy and wickedly funny J Evarts in Now You See Me. Evarts and Tony Perucci each contribute a number of vivid cameos that enliven the proceedings. Perucci is good as Claire’s oncologist, but is particularly poignant in his moments as one the three other cancer patients that “Final Battle” is following.
So far, so good. But this decidedly dark comedy falters when it introduces an improbable subplot that calls for a romance between Claire and a droopy-drawers television production assistant named Bixby (Chris Burner). Not only is this plot turn preposterous, but Rachel Klem and Chris Burner have no chemistry whatsoever. Indeed, their on-camera fumbling beneath the sheets, a la MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” t’aint funny, McGee!
Carl Martin gets big laughs as an amoral TV producer named Ravenel, who is gung-ho to milk the cancer patients’ personal tragedies for higher ratings and bigger advertising buys; and dramatist Neal Bell’s fellow Duke Theatre Studies faculty member Jody McAuliffe and her personable cast get a great many guffaws from this smartly staged, but uneven script. The fun doesn’t end when Claire and Bixby commence their low-rent romance, but this unlikely tryst is an unwelcome development in what is otherwise a devilishly funny script.
SECOND OPINION: March 23, 2011 Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Adam Sobsey (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/reality-tv-and-celebrity-in-now-you-see-me-at-manbites-dog-in-durham/Content?oid=2209859 and March 15, 2011 interview of playwright Neal C. Bell by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2011/03/15/illness-privacy-and-reality-tv-the-independent-interview-with-now-you-see-me-playwright-neal-bell; March 22, 2011 Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Glenn McDonald: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/03/22/1070890/when-the-viewer-becomes-the-viewed.html; and March 21, 2011 Raleigh, NC Classical Voice of North Carolina review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=1774; and Feb. 28, 2010 New York City Playbill.com preview by Allison Klamkin: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/137347-Neal-Bells-Two-Small-Bodies-and-Now-You-See-Me-Get-NC-Presentations. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the March 16, 2011 Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/03/neal-bells-now-you-see-me-examines-reality-tv-with-a-gimlet-eye/.)
The Duke University Department of Theater Studies and Manbites Dog Theater presents NOW YOU SEE, a world premiere of a new play by Neal Bell, at 8:15 p.m. March 24-26 at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701. TICKETS: $12 weeknights and $17 Friday-Saturday, except $5 Student Rush Tickets and $2 discount for seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel.
BOX OFFICE: 919/682-3343 or https://www.etix.com/.
Duke University Department of Theater Studies: http://theaterstudies.duke.edu/.
Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/.
Neal C. Bell: http://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people?Gurl=/aas/TheaterStudies&Uil=neal.bell&subpage=profile (Duke Theater Studies).
Jody McAuliffe: http://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people?Gurl=/aas/TheaterStudies&Uil=mca&subpage=profile (Duke Theater Studies).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.