Richard Greenberg’s “Night and Her Stars,” at Alliance Repertory Company, converts a much-exploited subject--the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s--into a probing cautionary tale that examines the insidious nature of personal compromise. Greenberg’s alchemical treatment of his overworked material, the topic of numerous books and the film “Quiz Show,” results in a surprisingly sophisticated philosophical discourse as satirical as it is ultimately poignant.
It’s the old story--the Faustian bargain--updated for our times. Only in this case, the demonic enticer is television producer Dan Enright (masterful Bob Neches), and his damned victim, brilliant university professor Charles Van Doren (the perfectly cast Dana Ashbrook), who ascends to the role of national savant after appearing on Enright’s popular quiz show “Twenty-One.”
As we know, that show was famously rigged. But why did Van Doren, scion of a famous American family of letters and a well-meaning man of conscience, agree to participate in Enright’s big lie? Greenberg offers compelling reasons beyond the obvious sleaze factor. Here, Enright emerges as a smooth-tongued seducer, a master of Jesuitical argument who isn’t asking for Van Doren’s soul--just a little piece of it. And under his cool, Apollonian exterior, Van Doren has a fatal Achilles’ heel--his intellectual vanity, the sense that he isn’t quite measuring up to his illustrious antecedents.
Greenberg’s is a long and challenging play that could easily become static. Steve Rudnick’s brisk staging shows off Greenberg’s work to optimum effect. Rudnick pitches the tone at a slightly artificial level--a wily tack that raises the characters out of reality’s mainstream and into the realm of myth. Suzan Fellman’s ingenious set is essentially an all-white stage with transparent plastic furniture. The most elaborate set piece is a vintage television set, seen only from behind, its cathode tubes flickering like an early warning signal. In this stark milieu, other handsomely rendered design elements--Keith Morrison’s lighting, James Intveld’s sound and Talia Jones’ costumes--become key.
Rudnick has assembled a dream team of actors, spearheaded by Neches and Ashbrook and the remarkable David Keats as Herb Stempel, an eccentric “Twenty-One” contestant who gets an early indoctrination in the importance of telegenic appeal. Knocked off the show by the more prepossessing Van Doren, Stempel shouts the truth about the show to the rooftops--but he’s largely ignored, simply because he comes across on the boob tube not as a dreamboat but as a dweeb.
In this period piece, shame is salubrious, a purgative emotion that fuels confession and reform. Today, when public notoriety is actively courted by the shameless, Greenberg’s drama is a barometer of a frightening cultural decline.
* “Night and Her Stars,” Alliance Repertory Company, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Today, 8 p.m.; this Sunday, 7 p.m.; then Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Dark Nov. 23 and 24. Ends Dec. 2. $15. (323) 930-9304. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.