nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 16, 2007
This actually happened: in 2005, a man named Andrew Fischer auctioned advertising space on his forehead on e-Bay and made about $50,000 in two months. Michael Vukadinovich's new play Billboard uses this idea as its starting point. The trouble is, the actual story (check out Fischer's website, if you care to, here) is much more interesting and eerily resonant than anything that happens in Vukadinovich's play.
In Billboard, a young man named Andy, deep in debt thanks to student loans and other expenses, decides to raise some cash quickly by having a corporate logo tattooed on his forehead for a year. We never learn the amount of money involved; he says the main reason he's done this seemingly crazy thing is so that he can afford to buy his girlfriend, Katelyn, an engagement ring.
But Katelyn's not buying it. She's immediately repulsed and incensed by the tattoo, first because she realizes that she'll have to look at her boyfriend for a year in this mutilated condition, and second because she's appalled that he would "sell out" in this fashion, and third because she's sore that he didn't consult with her before making this decision. Her points are valid, and are generally echoed by Damon, Billboard's third character, Andy's unfortunately cliched goofy best friend.
Yet, Andy's points—about needing money, about being romantic enough to do something authentically quixotic in order to be able to afford to get married—are never taken seriously at all. Vukadinovich stacks the deck entirely against him; it's tough for the protagonist of a play to survive this kind of an onslaught from his own creator. Billboard spends most of its time exploring Katelyn's decision to turn Andy into a piece of art (she's a struggling painter), and though it was never clear to me exactly what she could do to make Andy's forehead into anything more than a pale copy of most of Andy Warhol's oeuvre, her efforts are well-received. Katelyn now has the option of exploiting Andy (which is a very different proposition from Andy exploiting himself) for commercial gain; and somehow we're supposed to be on her side. I wasn't. In the end, Andy concedes that Katelyn was "right" (about what?) and agrees to appear as a living art work in her show.
It's unsatisfying drama, especially given the great potential of the premise, which Fischer understands in his very creepy postmodern way, though Vukadinovich seems not to.
The play is staged deftly enough by Tania Inessa Kirkman, with an effective design by Zhanna Gurvich and Gaetane Bertol (set), Colin D. Young (lighting), and Carla Bellisio (costumes). Video transitions in the second half only felt a little gratuitous, however.
The three-member cast works well with what they've been given. Joey Piscopo steals the show as Damon, because he has all the endearing, funny material. Ken Matthews works hard to make Andy ingratiating but the playwright undercuts him at nearly every turn. Sarah K. Lippmann plays Katelyn as a manipulative, unyielding sort of person, which seems to be what the role calls for.
It's a peculiar show, finally: a timely, provocative concept gets quickly sidelined here in favor of a too-familiar self-flagellating men-are-pigs/women-are-put-upon retread, which is enormously disappointing.