There are times when a piece of art so perfectly captures the national zeitgeist that it's hard to imagine it having nearly as strong an impact at any other point in time. Unfortunately, Rogue Machine's production of Deb Hiett's The Super Variety Match Bonus Round! has the extreme misfortune of having its world premiere so soon after a real life event that discounts much of the play's message. There's obviously no way Rogue Machine's artistic staff could've foreseen the twists and turns of the 2016 election, so this spectacularly bad timing isn't really anyone's fault. It does, however, cast a pall over the show that makes this particular production very tricky to deal with.
The story centers on an older, retired Texas couple, Ernest and Mags Eagleton, who reluctantly AirBnB a vacant bedroom to a young traveler in town for a music festival. This traveler is Chrz: a friendly, gender-neutral, fiercely intelligent, optimistic millennial who is simultaneously a perfect encapsulation and exaggerated stereotype of the young radical liberal. Much of the first half of the play focuses on the generational gap between the threesome. Mags (a wonderfully caustic Bonnie Bailey-Reed) has little patience or desire to learn about Chrz's ways, offended even by things as innocuous as their vowel-less name. Chrz, on the other hand, views the Eagletons as quaint curiosities of a dying America. Ernest runs interference between the two, genuinely interested in Chrz's generation and in getting Mags to embrace their weekend guest.
While it's fascinating to watch this inter-generational dynamic, Ms. Hiett's allegiance is clearly with Chrz. The central conflict lies in Ernest's attempts to get Mags to stop grieving for their deceased veteran son and embrace the inevitable, progressive future. But, after tens of millions of Americans, not too unlike the Eagletons, have loudly made their voices heard, this message comes across as condescending, as if these tens of millions of people are playthings used to teach a lesson instead of flesh-and-blood humans with political agency.
This would present a much larger problem if Ms. Bailey-Reed and Mark L. Taylor as Ernest weren't so good at providing depth to their characters. Mr. Taylor especially nails Ernest's humble Southern hospitality and finds much needed nuance in his "gee-whiz" attempts to connect with Chrz. Even though Ms. Hiett has a clear gift for quick one-liners and with turning classic tropes on their head (much of the play's first half is essentially a classic sitcom plot with an enticingly bizarro twist) the play's best moments are the ones focused solely on Mags and Ernest's marriage. Their relationship is treated with such tenderness and empathy that it's disheartening to see Chrz's unintentional condescension.
The play's second half transports us (thanks to a plot twist that's shockingly incongruous with Victoria Ortiz's chipper portrayal of Chrz) to the mystical game show of the title, where the Eagletons are given the chance to win a new lease on life. The game (a hectic mix between Family Feud,
The Match Game, and shows of that ilk) is purposely chaotic, but lacks a consistency in the chaos, sapping the sequence of the danger it so desperately needs. The design team, however, is
on point with this transformation from cozy Texas home to gaudy game show, especially Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's clever scenic design and Jared A. Sayed's lighting.
Despite all the issues that have given me pause (both while watching the show and writing this review) the production remains engrossing, thanks to the actors and to Cameron Watson's lively direction. There's not a dull moment and it kept me guessing until the very end. In a time when so many Americans are searching for escapism, live theatre is a godsend... it's just a bummer that this one remains burdened by what they're trying to escape from.