May 16, 2018

“Turning Off the Morning News” Blends Sitcoms, Horrific Events; Christopher Durang’s Dark Comedy Premieres at McCarter Theatre

“TURNING OFF THE MORNING NEWS”: Performances are underway for “Turning Off the Morning News.” Directed by Artistic Director Emily Mann, the play runs through June 3 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. From left: Jimmy (John Pankow) and Polly (Kristine Nielsen) make a memorable, if undesirable, first impression on new neighbors Salena (Rachel Nicks) and Clifford (Robert Sella). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

middle-aged father, Jimmy, nonchalantly announces his decision to shoot either his wife Polly and their 13-year-old son Timmy, or strangers at a mall. Polly attempts to ignore Jimmy’s behavior by focusing on her houseplant, and dreaming of going to heaven. Dysfunctional characters and horrifying events are viewed through the lens of a wholesome family sitcom.

Commissioned by McCarter Theatre Center, in conjunction with the Roger S. Berlind Playwright-in-Residence Program at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, Turning Off the Morning News opened May 12 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. The world premiere of Christopher Durang’s darkly humorous play is a success, delivered by a cast whose performances are marked by impeccable comic timing.

Durang’s characters live in the world of a TV show, and media culture inhabits every fiber of their being. This is made clear by a frame around the stage that imitates the screen of a television set that was built in the days before flat screens and high definition. Mark Bennett’s appropriately fidgety music also serves as a frame, ending each scene as if about to cut to a commercial break. The placement of a satellite dish on top of every house further accentuates the dominance of television.

Jimmy forces Polly to decide whether he should shoot his family, or shoppers at the mall; Polly chooses the shoppers. Jimmy puts on a pig’s head mask that was given to Timmy for Halloween, and leaves the house, carrying a bag of guns. Polly doubts that Jimmy will carry out his plans. Timmy, who has complained about being bullied by his classmates, is terrified.

John Pankow brings an eerie deadpan to the role of Jimmy. His matter-of-fact delivery of his lines, paired with his body language — he settles comfortably into chairs — suggests that the character is all too at ease with his behavior.

By contrast, Kristine Nielsen’s portrayal of Polly is a mixture of warmth and nervous energy. She almost always is in motion, her hands often shaking. The juxtaposition recalls the musical Sweeney Todd, in which a chatty, cheerful woman is the counterpart of a dangerous man.

Clifford and his friend Salena have just moved into the house next door to Jimmy and Polly. They have decorated their living room wall with a painting of a peaceful landscape, and Clifford listens to classical music to relax whenever the news makes him nervous. Clifford is worried when he notices Jimmy wearing the pig’s head mask, and calls Salena into the room. However, Jimmy leaves before Salena can catch a glimpse of him.

Salena tells Clifford about her experience meeting Rosalind, another neighbor. Rosalind wears a pillowcase over her head to protect her skin from the sun, and Salena wonders whether the pig’s head serves the same purpose. Clifford becomes increasingly concerned about the sanity of his new neighbors.

Jenn Harris is entertaining as Rosalind. Like Polly, Rosalind is animated, her motions brisk. Robert Sella captures Clifford’s fragile composure. Both Sella and Rachel Nicks, who plays Salena, are economical in their use of gestures. They often keep their hands folded, in a somewhat defensive posture, to contrast with the exuberance of Polly and Rosalind.

To Timmy’s horror, Polly decides to homeschool him. Timmy’s first homework assignment from Polly is to write a report about The View.

Jimmy returns home without the mask, saying that he has thrown it in a river. He announces that he has decided not to kill anyone, and plans instead to write a novel. He warns Polly and Timmy that he will carry out his original, murderous plans if the book is not published. Hoping to give Timmy and herself more time to live, Polly encourages Jimmy to procrastinate on the novel. Jimmy directs his aggression toward Polly’s favorite houseplant, shooting at it.

Clifford tries to calm himself before leaving to start his new job at the newspaper. Salena has invited Rosalind to their house, and asks Clifford to stay home until he gets a chance to meet her. Salena asks Rosalind if she knows anything about their next-door neighbors, and decides to invite them for cocktails. This idea makes Clifford uneasy, and he quickly leaves for work. Salena explains to Rosalind that it takes Clifford time to grow comfortable around people.

Mourning the loss of her plant, Polly fantasizes about heaven. Jimmy barges in and complains that he is having difficulty writing his novel. Their ensuing argument is interrupted by a phone call, after which Polly tells Jimmy that they have been invited to Salena’s cocktail party. Irritated, Jimmy tries to choke Polly.

On the day of the party, Clifford and Salena apprehensively wait for their peculiar guests. As soon as they arrive, Jimmy and Polly argue. Wanting to make a better first impression, Polly insists that they exit and re-enter the house, like a film director who demands multiple takes of a scene. This happens again when Rosalind arrives. The reactions of Clifford and Salena are amusing to watch. The cast’s chemistry and comic timing are crucial here, and they make the scene a tour de force.

The day after the party, Timmy begs Polly to let him go back to his school, but she refuses. Jimmy dresses like Rosalind, ready for a shooting spree at the mall. Polly unsuccessfully attempts to focus Jimmy on his novel. After he sees Jimmy with his rifles, Timmy implores Polly to call the police.

Looking out the window, Clifford tells Salena that Jimmy is dressed like Rosalind. Salena doubts this until the real Rosalind arrives. Increasingly concerned about Jimmy’s behavior, they decide to visit Polly and seek an explanation.

Upon arriving at Jimmy’s house, they discover that Polly and Timmy have been tied to chairs, their mouths covered with tape. After freeing them, they turn on the news, and hear about a disturbance at the mall. Later, Timmy reveals that he overheard his parents blurting out a crucial secret during one of their many arguments.

Nicholas Podany delivers a solid performance as Timmy, who lurches between horrified silence and anguished outbursts. Of everyone in his family, Timmy is the only one who responds logically to the unfolding absurdity around him.

As with the best comedies, there is a “normal” character to react to the antics of the eccentric one. As a couple, Clifford and Salena are an effective contrast to Jimmy, Polly, and Rosalind. Timmy is a clear-cut and sympathetic protagonist.

In the McCarter lobby is a poster titled Durang on Durang. One of the influences cited by the playwright is I Love Lucy. This is evident in the script’s parody of the early sitcom genre, although Jimmy and Polly’s contentious relationship perhaps is more evocative of The Honeymooners, with a long-suffering wife tolerating her husband’s antics.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is not cited as an influence, but it is evoked. Our Town, which presents an idealized view of small-town America, has its characters directly address the audience and acknowledge that they are in a play. This happens in Turning Off the Morning News as well. “You’re lucky I’m in the play and not in the audience,” Jimmy threateningly declares in his introductory scene. Polly notes that Timmy “looks 17 or 18, but we didn’t want to cast a real 13-year-old.”

Well-known films also are mentioned or evoked. Salena chides the nervous Clifford for behaving like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window. A scene in which Timmy turns to the audience and screams for help is reminiscent of Pleasantville, a film in which a cheerful sitcom’s characters decide that they no longer wish to be limited to the world that has been written for them.

These allusions work because they are organic to the world of the play and its characters. Media outlets form Polly’s frame of reference for everything. Remembering the film The Ten Commandments, she declares, “Charlton Heston is Moses.” Later she paraphrases Cole Porter’s lyrics for the title song of the musical Anything Goes, to teach Timmy about the history of the puritans.

Emily Mann’s staging fills every scene with an amusing tableau, particularly in the cocktail party scene. Like Beowulf Boritt’s sets, Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costume designs use a color palette consisting mostly of yellow, red, and blue. Appropriately, this gives the production the look of an early color television show — or a Sunday comic strip. It also evokes a falsely cheerful mood that makes the dark undercurrents more disturbing.

Turning Off the Morning News is amusing because of its juxtaposition of the classic sitcom genre with contemporary problems. Subjects such as gun violence and domestic abuse become more entertaining than they have any right to be. Durang deftly bounces character types off of each other, and the talented cast makes those idiosyncratic characters entertaining.

“Turning Off the Morning News” will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 3. For tickets, show times, and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit