Given that you have to sit suffering through the disgraceful This is Not a Theater, it’s almost irrelevant to review THE LIVING NEWSPAPER, but NEWSPAPER is at least a “show” (read my take on the twin production here) It begins promisingly enough: The stage is equipped with cameras, TV screens, a control board, and a green screen. Pulling headlines from all the important papers, the performers report the news from the same day as the performance; as an audience member you can watch them live or on a big upstage screen. The joke is mostly the dryness of the performers and their mockingly generic attitudes toward the news. There is an anchor (Michael Wiener), a commentator (Audrey Crabtree), and a correspondent (Annie Fox) who goes out into the audience and asks questions about the news.
The silliness of the idea and the good-spirited audience interaction sustain the laughs for about half an hour before NEWSPAPER loses its momentum. Then Crabtree gets a handful of audience members onstage to recreate a pose from one of the day’s news-related photographs. It’s kind of funny the first time it happens, then not so funny the second, then it’s, “Seriously, we’re doing this again?” The idea of basing a performance on the news of the same day requires actors who can improvise, who can think and act quickly. The photo gag seems to be an attempt at excusing the actors from doing something funny by using audience members to create something potentially funny. The photo gag would only work if the day’s news produced funny photos.
The opening performance was on September 11. You shouldn’t have to think real hard about why it might be difficult to wrench some comedy out of this. When the performers try to make light out of serious news stories, the mood in the room goes from “light and playful” to “Michael and Jan’s dinner party” in seconds. The most awkward moment of last night’s show was when Fox began asking random audience members about a time the news made them cry. A serious question, so one man gave a serious answer, citing a recent national tragedy. The performers then summarized the man’s words in the form of mock headlines. It wasn’t funny, and the man expressed the same discomfort that I felt at the actors making fun of a national tragedy. This was about five minutes before the end of the show, and there wasn’t a single laugh for the rest of the time.
Is this one of those instances where getting under the audience’s skin and making them uncomfortable is the point? If so, cheers to Wiener, Crabtree and Fox. But the truly talented find a way to make even discomfort exciting and intriguing. In NEWSPAPER, the awkwardness is like manure: expressing nothing but leaving an awful stench. If the aim was not to promote discomfort but to be funny, then shame on those performers for thinking it’s funny to goad people into expressing serious opinions and then to mock them for their seriousness. THE LIVING NEWSPAPER contains the seed of a funny idea, but it needs to put its faith in funnier people rather than unprepared and often unwilling audience members. [Plays and Players Theater]. September 11-12, 2013. livearts-fringe.org/festival/2013/the-living-newspaper.