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Theatre in Review: Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson (Working Theater/ART New York Theatres)

Reyna de Courcy, Jonathan Sale. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

If ever a title told all, this is it: The main action of Rob Ackerman's barbed comedy is stated directly above. His play unfolds on the set of an AT&T commercial, in which the star of The Royal Tenenbaums and dozens of other films, outfitted with an umbrella and standing in front of a video screen, explains why Verizon's service is vastly inferior. The following dialogue, between Alice, the assistant director, and Jenny, a props assistant, lays it out:

Alice: Verizon shows you a map with like a billion red dots. Each of the dots is s'posta to mean they've got a cell tower or something. And our gumballs are their dots.

Jenny: So the gumballs are like dropped calls?

Alice: No, they're calls that can never happen, because Verizon's lying.

Jenny: Oh, so, the gumballs are a metaphor for lies?

Alice: Yeah, I guess. Except they don't stick. They start to fall down.

Jenny: So the lies can literally hurt us?

Alice: I don't know, Jenny, it's a commercial.

One thing becomes clear during a take gone wrong: Gumballs dropped on the talent's head can result in disorientation and extreme pain. This inspires a round of mea culpas from Rob, the prop guy in charge of the dropping. But Ackerman has a dilly of a twist on hand: The commercial is being directed by the eminent documentarian Errol Morris, here portrayed as a manipulative sadist who can't stop using his God mic even when standing in full view of the company. He takes Rob aside and, confidentially, tells him to, during the next take, make sure he lands those gumballs on Wilson's unprotected skull.

This command sets off all sorts of farcical complications, especially as everyone else on staff is made complicit in a stunt that is as dangerous as it is ridiculous. (Kudos to this production's prop staff; the gumballs they have chosen land on the stage with a crack that puts one in mind of machine guns.) Ackerman is the author of Tabletop, an acclaimed and very funny comedy about a commercial shoot (for a frothy, fruity drink) that turns into a nest of Machiavellian maneuvers. Tabletop was first seen nearly twenty years ago, and if Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson revisits much of the same territory, it adds delicious new details, including a flashback in which Rob recalls how, working on another shoot, he built a catapult to land a custard pie in Susan Lucci's face.

The playwright also has plenty of catty fun with his two marquee characters: Wilson, as presented here, is none too bright, and so addicted to the pastries at craft service that he is bursting the seams of his shirt and jeans; Morris, who, in real life, has filmed more than a thousand commercials, is depicted as an expert at psychological torture, deftly bullying Wilson into putting his skull at risk before stopping the action to lecture everyone about the Interrotron, his device for interviewing subjects while keeping his eye on the camera. It seems worth mentioning in passing that Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is billed as "a sort-of true story."

But Ackerman has more on his mind than the stuff of a quick comic sketch. As Morris pushes his staff to obey his directive, the play poses some pointed questions about the uses of power and the malleability of truth. Alice tries to report him to the Directors Guild, but he effectively silences her with threats of being blackballed. Ken, Rob's older mentor, has just gotten himself off painkillers and can't afford to be out of work. Rob, who has long worshipped Morris for films like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, struggles to process the evidence that the artist he admires is a schmuck.

And when Rob, finally roused to rebellion, takes Morris to task for filming a history of IBM that leaves out the corporation's dealings with the Nazis, the director coolly replies, "Who even knows what a lie is anymore? We're living an Orwellian nightmare of conspiracy theories and made-up news and evasive impenetrable gobbledygook, so I read, I research, I watch, I see, I parse what is real from what is not real, what has meaning from what is garbage, and then I tell the story of what I learn." When pressed about IBM and the Nazis, he adds, "No story I told about that company is false. It is possible that their corporate culture became more inclusive as a form of atonement." Anyone who comes up with an evasion like that ought to be running for president.

The playwright Theresa Rebeck makes her New York directorial debut here and she handles both sides of the play -- the show business shenanigans and clash of ideas -- with authority, putting a well-cast troupe through their paces and never letting the action go slack. George Hampe's Rob, with his big glasses, floppy hair, and fawning manner, is every inch the geeky naïf until he discovers his idol's feet of clay and learns to talk back. As Wilson, Jonathan Sale, amusingly costumed by Tricia Barsamian to look sorely in need of a trip to the Golden Door spa, offers a definitive study in clueless star privilege. David Wohl's Morris is marinated in self-satisfaction, especially when explaining that the sight of Wilson under gumball assault is the only non-boring part of the commercial. Reyna de Courcy is properly ingenuous as Jenny and Dean Nolen is suitably grizzled as Ken, who has seen it all, including being asked to put his life at risk for a shoot at an oil refinery. As Alice, the always-delightful Ann Harada puts her best deadpan, eye-rolling manner to excellent use, her self-disgust rising as she lends her assistance to a morally reprehensible act.

The production benefits from a design that adds verisimilitude to these amusingly dubious proceedings. The set designers Christopher Swader and Justin Swader have created a lifelike studio setting, complete with flats and softboxes that serve as surfaces for Yana Biryukova's imagery of various television commercials. Mary Ellen Stebbins' lighting transforms the space with color and angle; she also provides a silhouette effect for a scene, featuring Ken and Rob, played behind a backlit scrim. Bart Fasbender's sound design includes music that sounds eerily like what you might hear in a spot for AT&T.

As was the case with Tabletop, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is an ideal script for Working Theater, whose artistic mission is suggested by its name. When the staff tries to take a vote on Morris' plan, he replies, "I don't vote. You don't vote. The workers don't get to vote about what'll happen at their job at Walmart or SalesForce or in this room -- the man at the top calls the shots, and we shoot." These words have an eerie currency; clearly, strongmen are hard to avoid these days, no matter how hard one tries. -- David Barbour


(27 June 2019)

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