The leviathan known as reality TV has been rampaging across the entertainment landscape for a couple of decades now, flattening everything in its path — including, I would argue, stuff that matters, like standards of quality and our collective cultural IQ.
So it’s probably past time for dramatists to venture inside the belly of the beast. First-time playwright Rod McLachlan intrepidly does so in “Good Television,’’ a drama about an “Intervention’’-like reality series on drug addiction that debuted off-Broadway last year and is now receiving its New England premiere at Zeitgeist Stage Company under the direction of David J. Miller.
There is much that is smart and thought-provoking in “Good Television,’’ and also much to commend in the Zeitgeist production, with a committed cast led by Christine Power. If only the playwright hadn’t resorted to such a tired, overused plot device for his turning point, an explosion of familial fireworks, complete with a Big Secret, that knocks the production off balance, its hitherto taut focus turning wobbly. At that point, a drama critical of manipulation and exploitation suddenly feels manipulative and exploitative itself.
I wish, too, that McLachlan had devoted more time to fleshing out his portrait of Clemson, a.k.a. Clemmy, the hapless, 21-year-old meth tweaker around whose fate “Good Television’’ is constructed. If the audience felt more invested in whether or not Clemmy can shake free of his addiction — the way we cared deeply about what ultimately happened to the ill-starred Jesse on “Breaking Bad’’ — the play would have more emotional heft, and McLachlan’s message about the human cost of ratings-driven reality TV machinations would register more forcefully.
Within those limitations, Clemmy is affectingly portrayed by Brandeis University student Ben Lewin, who brings an aura of childlike befuddlement to the character, constantly pulling down the sleeves of his drab sweatshirt as if he’s trying to disappear inside it. Jenny Reagan delivers a vivid performance as his divorced, overburdened sister Brittany, who is caring for their dying mother and her own children while desperately trying to steer Clemmy into rehab by landing him a slot on the reality show. Reagan manages to avoid a one-note characterization even though Brittany spends much of the play in tears or at least in a state of high agitation.
But the conflicted conscience of “Good Television’’ is Power’s Connie, a former addiction counselor turned field producer at a series titled “Rehabilitation.’’ The series follows drug addicts and their families, climaxing with a dramatic confrontation/intervention at the end by the family. In return for offering their private agony up for public consumption, addicts earn stints in a rehab clinic. And what does the network get? Three million viewers a week. Ratings: television’s drug of choice, its not-so-hidden addiction.
Power skillfully conveys a quality of ominous stillness that suggests Connie, for all her poised professionalism, is on the verge of collapse or eruption, maybe both. As the play gets underway, the network has nearly doubled its episode order for “Rehabilitation,’’ putting even more of a workload on Connie, the acknowledged “rock star’’ of the series. Adding to that stress is the fact that she’s balking at pressure to showcase Clemmy. Apart from her doubts about his suitability, she seems to have a sense that catastrophe is in store.
As events unfold, it is primarily (though not only) Connie through whom McLachlan explores his themes of guilt and contrition and second chances. Connie carries substantial baggage from her own past into the Aiken, S.C., double-wide trailer where the second-act showdown occurs between members of Clemmy’s clan. They include the addict’s meddling brother (Olev Aleksander) who spouts off about “life rights’’ and compensation for the family, and their ne’er-do-well, long-absent father, played by Bill Salem.
That noisy showdown is not as absorbing, though, as the scenes in the Los Angeles office of “Rehabilitation’’ that capture the medium and its creators at their most calculating. Seemingly the only one in possession of a moral compass, Connie is caught in the crossfire among her more ruthless colleagues: Bernice, the showrunner, played by Zeitgeist stalwart Shelley Brown; Ethan, Bernice’s smarmy successor, portrayed by William Bowry; and Tara, a cocky young associate producer, played by Tasia Jones. All of them are eager to turn the spotlight on Clemmy & Co.
Indeed, Bernice says that Clemmy is “a gift,’’ noting that the network has been pressuring her to find “a cute young male subject.’’ Later, she bluntly informs Connie that while treatment may be the calling card of the series, “ ‘Treatment’ will never be in charge. ‘Television’ is always in charge.’’ Reality indeed.