Producer makes 'Dead Guy' come alive

In "The Dead Guy," doomed TV contestant Eldon Phelps (Tim Altmeyer) woos his ex-girlfriend Christy (Libby Arnold) among other pursuits.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Who could have imagined a writers' strike pre-empting most of television's scripted shows when The Hippodrome chose its season of plays last summer and came up with "The Dead Guy," Eric Coble's fascinating and gut-wrenching satire of reality shows? Talk about timely: "The Dead Guy" takes aim at the many reality shows that fill the spaces on today's TV schedules. Because of the writers' strike, TV networks are desperately programming reality shows in which gospel choirs compete with each other and celebrities try to master complex dance steps while quivering in the shadow of "American Idol," which made its season debut on Monday.


"The Dead Guy"

What: Satirical comedy about a TV contestant who receives $1 million for his death to be televised.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 3.

Where: Hippodrome State Theatre, 25 SE 2nd Place.

Tickets: $25-$30, $20 seniors, $10 students; $15 tonight's preview. (375-4477)

For Coble, reality shows are a metaphor for America's obsession with fame. The American psyche is all about money and celebrity. The proof lies at the heart of his hard-hitting satire, "The Dead Guy."

The play's premise is simple: An ordinary guy is chosen by a high-powered TV producer and asked to sign a contract in which he gets $1 million to spend however he chooses in one week's time. He must allow a cameraman to film him as he spends the money, and each night his adventures are broadcast to a TV audience. The catch? At the end of the week, he dies, and the TV audience decides on his manner of death. (Choices include poisoned bullet, bus collision and quiet demise in his sleep.)

Eldon Phelps, a small-town loser, decides to become "the dead guy," as the TV audience calls him. He signs the contract with Gina, his Faustian producer. And he and Dougie, his boorish cameraman, plod through each day of the week, spending money on pickup trucks and jewelry, and trying to impress his family and ex-girlfriend with his financial largesse. When that doesn't work, and he's rejected by his mother, his brother Virgil and his girlfriend, Christy, he does what any dying, nouveau riche millionaire would do: He goes to Disneyland and makes out with a couple of hookers

The highly motivated, ever innovative (and ratings-conscious) Gina reminds Eldon that he won't achieve fame following self-centered pursuits, so Eldon decides to get with the program. He wants to make the world a better place, give to charity and show everyone that he is a good human being.

The Hippodrome's stage is cleverly set up with five TV screens. Eldon's every word and every action is recorded on tape and shown on the screens complete with commercial breaks for this play within a play. Gina serves as moderator for Eldon's nightly show. She's elated as the show's ratings climb with each passing day and fans become "Dead Guy" supporters, voting in the hundreds of thousands to choose how Eldon will die. At one point in the play, Eldon wants out of the arrangement but realizes he's stuck. He's valued more dead than alive.

Gina, the producer, is played by Jessica Ires Morris in a style that's part Barbara Walters and part Mary Hart with a dollop of Ryan Seacrest in the mix. She has a killer smile that she turns on and off like a high-wattage, electric light bulb. In her quest for ratings, she's single-minded and ruthless, not a woman you want to mess with.

Morris is quite simply amazing in a role that dominates the play. She meets her match with Tim Altmeyer, who plays the simple Eldon as a buffoon, a crude country boy and a know-nothing. Altmeyer is perfect as the crotch-grabbing, stupid, boozing Eldon, who becomes the unlikely hero of a morbid reality show.

In smaller roles, Sara Morsey is funny as Eldon's greedy mother. Bobby McAffee is right-on as Virgil, Eldon's dim-witted brother. Playing Christy, the girlfriend who sticks by Eldon, Libby Arnold gives a winning performance. Nell Page is amusing doing double duty as both a hooker and a doctor. Dougie, the cameraman, is played by Michael T. Toth.

Lauren Caldwell smartly directed the Hippodrome's production of Coble's dark satire. Marilyn Wall designed the costumes and Robert P. Robins designed the lights. Risa J. Baxter is responsible for the sound (and some good country-western music). Credit Eric Behnke, Robert P. Robins and Patrick Pagano for the video.

Is there a trick ending to "The Dead Guy"? Does Eldon actually die? How does the audience vote? In "The Dead Guy," Eric Coble makes a damning observation of American culture epitomized by the reality show. It will be interesting to see if The Hipp's audiences agree with him.

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