Monday, December 19, 2022

Survivor: Vietnam! - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

The first time I ever saw a real improv show was also the first time I ever went to The Red Room and it was also the first time I encountered the mad talents of Rob Reese. The year was 1998. The show was called Honey Harlowe, a double bill of comedy acts, the last of which featured Reese and his company Amnesia Wars doing (according to my review) "some of the sharpest, smartest, and funniest theatre in New York."

Those adjectives have applied to everything I've ever seen Rob do since that night almost 25 years ago. There have been multiple Amnesia Wars improv and comedy shows, but there have also been scripted works. In 2000, Rob adapted and directed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage (originally performed in New York at the Pelican Studio Theater)--a remarkably faithful and intense rendition of the classic tale that featured four actors as the Monster. (That play eventually ended up in my anthology Playing With Canons.)

Rob's next play was this one, a satire of the then-popular Survivor TV franchise. It opened at the PIT on a Saturday at 10pm, which is late for me; subsequent performances were at midnight. review - May 17, 2003

Rob Reese—actor, writer, director, improv teacher, and world traveler—can now add Ultimate Capitalist to his impressive curriculum vitae. In Survivor: Vietnam!, his new parody of a certain very popular reality TV show, now running late nights at Peoples Improv Theatre, he gives the world the consumer product that it's been waiting for. It's called "Wipe 'N Go, the completely disposable two step cleaning system": all you need to do is open the package and then throw it away and you're done (see, two steps).

I give away just this one of Reese's dead-on satirical barbs to show you how on-target his writing is. In two hilarious, brilliantly-crafted "commercials," Reese both deconstructs and fires cautionary warning shots at the state of marketing (and consumer gullibility) in America today (he presses some other buttons as well). Performed simply at two microphones by Reese and Jason Evans, they're neat gems of comic wisdom, all by themselves worth the price of admission to this subversive little show.

Which is not to imply that the rest of Survivor: Vietnam! isn't worth your time. It is, but as sometimes happens in the world of TV, the commercials really are the best part. The premise of Survivor: Vietnam! is that a desperate network has set its newest reality show in the midst of the Vietnam War. Never mind the fact that this war ended some thirty years ago; the media honchos have thoughtfully recreated it, bombing raids and all. Oh, but this time a lot of the Viet Cong are portrayed by beautiful models in skimpy bathing suits.

Reese gives us six rather typical contestants to rough it through combat for a chance at a multi-million dollar prize. There's ditzy vegan Julia (Julia Motyka), naive student Mike (Marcus Bonnée), vaguely lascivious warrior Orf (Daniel Berman), militant feminist Erica (Eric Brenner, in extremely unconvincing drag), and a married couple, controlling Angela (Angela DiGenarro) and her doormat of a husband, Darryl (Darryl Reilly). Egged on by annoyingly chipper host Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon (Nitra Guiterrez), they are made to play "games" like a version of Russian Roulette involving six beer cans (one of the cans has been pre-shaken so it will explode when smashed against someone's head). The women are also encouraged to lift their t-shirts frequently. It's just like TV.

Of course, even as his spot-on parody of this or that reality show goes its merry way, Reese has something a bit darker up his sleeve. Eventually, the remaining survivors find themselves up against authentic danger, perpetrated by an exec-gone-mad named Kurtz. They (and we) wind up in Conrad country, exploring the limits to man's capacity for exploitation and evil (or, more accurately, the apparent lack of such limits) as Survivor morphs into Apocalypse Now.

Not that things get too serious: the finale is a silly, slapstick combat-chase sequence that feels as much like Keystone Kops as anything; Reese's primary objective is to keep us laughing, and he succeeds. Especially with those two commercial interruptions.

The company is fearless and enthusiastic and maintain the requisite high energy level to put over the gags. The staging is simple and minimalist, as befits a director whose roots are in the world of improv; don't worry, you've seen enough of the kind of TV this show is parodying to fill in all the blanks in your mind's eye.


As I noted in the review above, Rob is one of those Renaissance indie theater hyphenates we frequently come upon: he is an actor, a director, a producer, a lighting designer, a stage technician, an improv teacher, a standup comic, and many other things as well as a fine playwright. I have encountered him in all sorts of unlikely places in the course of our friendship, everywhere from the makeshift stage at The Parkside Lounge in the Lower East Side to behind a giant follow-spot at The Public Theater.

Among Rob's subsequent produced plays after this one are Keanu Reaves Saves the Universe (2004; arguably his most popular work) and  a musical whodunnit called Miranda (2012; co-written with composer Kamala Sankaram).

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