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The Ruby Sunrise
by Rob Kendt

©2005 Michal Daniel
Marin Ireland in
The Ruby Sunrise
Something to say, and a distinctive voice to say it with--a writer can't ask for much more than these, and certainly many successful writers get by with just one or the other. With her stylish new play The Ruby Sunrise, Rinne Groff demonstrates both vaulting thematic ambition and sinuous theatrical flair, and director Oskar Eustis, in his debut bow as artistic director of the Public Theater, realizes Groff's work with a lavish, sure-handed brio that serves the show's inner life as much as its outer sheen.

It's a pity, then, that The Ruby Sunrise doesn't quite convince. Groff packs this witty, often soulful look back at the beginnings of television with fiery characters, and she draws them with a satisfyingly broad but idiosyncratic brush. But the moral paces she puts them through finally feel overdetermined, engineered--indeed, TV-like.

The title character is an edgy, tomboyish Indiana farm girl (Marin Ireland) who turns up on the doorstep of her bitter aunt (Anne Scurria) in 1927 to lick the wounds of an abusive past and pursue a lonely, quixotic quest to perfect the first television set. As if thinking through the physics of a new technology weren't enough, Ruby's also got grand notions of the ways television will change the world by binding people together and spreading the unvarnished truth. "Television'll be the end of war," she tells a sweet-tempered young swain, Henry (Patch Darragh), "because who could bear to see war in their living room?" Yes, we are meant to register the tragic irony in such utopian aspirations, given the ubiquitous, stupefying, often isolating social force television has become--and to be reminded that, as one recent left-progressive slogan puts it, another world is possible.

Story continues below

And that's just the prologue. By the end of the first act we're in New York in 1952, where Ruby's daughter Lulu (Maggie Siff) is working her way up in the new mass medium of television with a remarkably selfless agenda: to tell Mama's story and realize the democratizing potential of the tube. She uses her post as script supervisor for a network producer, Martin Marcus (Richard Masur), to romance an emerging young writer, Tad Rose (Jason Butler Harner), and get Ruby's story made into a teleplay, along the way fighting advertiser-driven compromises and the shadow of the anti-communist blacklist.

Even when she gets preachy, Groff writes sharp, vertiginous dialogue and toys teasingly with theatrical form, and Eustis' fleet-footed, gently swinging production matches her steps like an expert dance partner. Eugene Lee's modular set ingeniously reminds us how close a sound stage is to a theater, (or is that vice versa?), and costumer Deborah Newhall comes up with some dapper period threads. The Aaron Copland instrumentals that boom through some of the early scene changes are bold and resonant choice, artfully preparing us for the myth-making italics and winking quotation marks with which Ruby's story will be told by evening's end.

Groff and Eustis have a lot of fun, maybe too much, with the conventions of the showbiz backstager. Outsized figures like the vulgarian Marcus, whom Masur gives red-faced heft and a waddling swagger, or a diva character actress played with deep-dish tang by Scurria, work well as comic relief, less well as voices of conscience. Marcus' tossed-off pronouncement, "Television is Latin for 'simple story,' " feels just right. But there's a little too much authorial nudging behind the scene in which Scurria's diva, trying to convince idealistic Lulu to fight the capitalist beast from within its belly, offers the rhetorical question: "What's so bad about better?"

The sportive but probing banter between Lulu and Tad, deftly played by Siff and Harner, somehow evokes Sunset Blvd.'s unequally yoked Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer. Here, though, it's television, not Hollywood, that is the succubus/seducer of artists and idealists, and Groff's view of the transaction is more ambivalent, less toxic--more Paddy Chayefsky than Billy Wilder. "We'll keep knocking on that glass screen until they sober up and get it," Lulu concludes. That's an admirably unfashionable mission statement in an age of "branded entertainment." And while I may not watch a network that Lulu programmed, Groff's work is well worth a tune-in.

The Ruby Sunrise
By Rinne Groff
Directed by Oskar Eustis
Public Theater

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 11/16/2005 9:35:00 AM


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