Victory at the Dirt Palace
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 20, 2008
Victory at the Dirt Palace, The Riot Group's contribution to Ice Factory 2008, takes place over the course of an evening and centers on the relationship between a father and a daughter. Both are anchors for two different programs broadcast by Salvon, a powerful news organization. The father hosts a program called "World News Tonight with James Mann." He's an older man with good looks, a rich voice, and a flair for the dramatic. He's burned out and contemplating retirement. It's never implicitly stated but part of this stems from the pressures of anchoring, and part of it comes from the effort to maintain a relationship with, and compete against, his daughter, K Mann.
K's news program is pitted against her father's in the same time slot. Her presentation style isn't as dramatic as her father's. She is full of integrity and better able to maneuver around the artifice presenting the news demands. The problem ultimately though is no matter how attuned she is, she's ultimately not impervious. The conflict in Victory at the Dirt Palace springs from the mixture of love and competition between James and K. They are supportive of one another ("Best of luck tonight Dad, I mean it") but also combative ("You don't have to mince words with me, my daughter's a cold bitch.") And their conniving and manipulative assistants, Andrew and Spence, do not help them in this respect. They have dreams of their own and are not afraid to shamelessly exploit the anchors' fragile kinship for their own personal gain.
Adriano Shaplin's smart script contains lines that leap unexpectedly from the actors' mouths ("Terrible things these obligations," James says, "...terrible things...Life is Eden but for the things required of us") and cutting exchanges (James: "Young lady: You question my undying love and usher doubt inviting hate?" K: "No dad, I cast a skeptical net and what I catch I throw back.") Shaplin spends the first quarter of the play establishing the characters, their personalities, and their conflicts until an international incident similar in scope—but not duration—to 9/11, focuses the action and propels their relationships to their strange and human conclusions.
Shaplin and his director Whit MacLaughlin obviously have a lot to say about the modern state of the press and media. The broadcasts are presented as competitive arenas where the concept of truth is filled with pressure and out of sync with the actual truth. James and K fight to scoop one another and are shown as two people willing to go to great lengths to ruin each other's careers. It also presents an atmosphere in which decisions are made based not the "the people's right to know" but for entertainment value and revenge. It is disappointing to note, then, that the international incident and another subplot involving some unsavory photos taken of K weaken their point of view. The international incident, the bombing of a tower, ends too quickly, while the photos and the threat ascribed to them isn't developed enough to understand the importance of their never being seen. Without this importance, immediacy of the characters and their actions are lessened and the audience's involvement is diluted.
Victory at the Dirt Palace is helped immeasurably by the performances though. Paul Schnabel as James Mann, Stephanie Viola as K Mann, Drew Friedman as Andrew, and Shaplin as Spence are excellent. Special mention goes to Viola, who locates and conveys the emotional core within the icy edifice, offering up a character we could easily despise but one we ultimately come to care for.