Writer-director Amanda Jones's Television! (The Play), at Broom Street Theater until July 18, is an exciting work of deceptively experimental comedy. The play is a series of often extremely funny sketches that marry a modernist honesty about their own artifice and a postmodernist reverence for the lowest of low-brow pleasures. A satirical critique of television and television culture, Television! (The Play) makes frequently clever use of audience interaction to conjure an atmosphere of unpredictable goofiness.
The experimental quality of Television! (The Play) is a result of its unique "channel-surfing" format. Jones puts the matter of determining the order in which the play's constituent segments will be performed in the audience's hands, presenting them with options through a wall-sized video projection that resembles a cable menu.
The audience is then invited to shout out which sketch they want to see next; because this democratic approach inevitably leads to audience members hollering in favor of different shows, an omnipotent decider (whom Jones describes in her prefatory spiel as "the voice of God"; this role is, of course, played by Jones herself) resolves the gridlock by simply telling the actors which segment to perform.
The segments themselves range from legitimately hilarious (a group of actors imitating the inexplicable "fire log" channel; a surprisingly successful spoof of Star Trek; a profane cooking show set after the demise of mankind and hosted by a cow whose mannerisms are borrowed from Paula Deen) to imaginative yet grating (a very strange children's show that makes fun of gays, the terminally ill and people with Down syndrome; an unfortunate parody of rap videos).
Television! (The Play)'s all-over style of blocking, created by placing the audience on three sides of the stage and then putting entrances/exits in each of its four corners, keeps the action spontaneous and consistently interesting. The acting is spirited throughout, though ultimately subordinate to the material being performed; an actor can be painfully funny in one sketch and then painfully annoying in the next. (Actors' roles aren't specified in the program, so I'm not able to single out performances.) However, very few of the play's jokes fall flat or fail to elicit some serious chuckling, which suggests that however unfunny I found some of the gags, Television! (The Play) nevertheless has the stuff to score big with seemingly any audience.
In the program, Jones describes Television! (The Play) as follows: "Television has changed with me as time went on, evolving and growing and getting smarter all the time -- sometimes too much for its own good. But like that afterburn on the screen, its influence is etched into my soul forever. This play is my incredibly screwed up valentine to that influence."
Yet for something that's supposedly a kind of love letter, Television! (The Play) is awfully critical of both television and the cultural sensibilities it has engendered. This critique is most apparent in the play's farcical treatment of the content of television, which is ultimately its primary subject. Jones presents herself as a connoisseur of the trash she lampoons, but she leaves plenty of room for divergent interpretations of what she's really up to.