"I waver back and forth between light pop-culture and darker stuff," says playwright Michael Elyanow, who teaches screenwriting at Hampshire College and whose recent credits include such diverse fare as "Eat Me," a comedy he penned for Disney, and the not-so-family-friendly "Banging Ann Coulter," an entry in Chicago's 10-minute play festival.
The frozen yogurt swirl of light and dark themes in "The Idiot Box" could have easily been reduced to a sticky, unappetizing puddle in the hands of a less able writer. And even with his dexterous handling of complicated themes, Elyanov overreaches once or twice.
"There's a new will" guiding the country, one of the flat-mates remarks early in the second act, not long after the sitcom set has literally come undone at the end of the first. "The will of the people has been put on 'block sender.'"
Aside from the rare shrill note, "The Idiot Box" is one of the most intriguing artistic forays into the darker corners of the American psyche either before or after 2001. That the characters and even the physical space of a sitcom -- arguably the national opiate of choice -- could crack open at the seams to reveal a world based on fear is itself an audacious premise. To succeed at taking a fine-grained and steadily engrossing look at the web of denial that holds those seams together is an even more impressive feat.
"I love Mark," Elyanov says of his New York City paramedic, played by Kelly Van Kirk, whose "everyday hero" exterior masks the disturbed mind of a character who ends up with blood on his hands. "I understand Mark -- he reveals the kind of incredible fear we all have. He's the voice of what's deepest and darkest in all of us."
Part of Elyanow's inspiration for "The Idiot Box" came from a production of Chekov's "Three Sisters" directed by Tony-winner Robert Falls.
"It was an eye-opening, consciousness-raising experience," Elyanow recalls. "When I read Chekov in high school, I thought, 'I don't understand anything these people are complaining about.' When I saw 'Three Sisters' as a young adult, I said, 'I didn't know you could talk about the things Chekov was talking about.'"
Elyanow does his audience the favor of talking about Chekovian matters through the voices of characters whose banal familiarity becomes a source of both drama and farce. Coaxing those twin muses of the theater onto the stage at the same time is a sorcerer's business, and with "The Idiot Box" Elyanow has certainly earned his pointy, star-spangled hat.
"The Idiot Box" continues at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood through Aug. 25. For more information, visit http://www.openfist.org.