By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There are at least three people trying to ignore the truth in what has become a defining moment of their lives in Man of the Moment, the sometimes sad, sometimes acidic 1988 comedy by Alan Ayckbourn. The fact that this moment -- a 17-year-old bank robbery thwarted by a meek clerk -- was witnessed and widely publicized as a brave blow against criminals suggests that some agreement can be reached about what really went down. But the hero and the armed robber have personal agendas that depend on their interpretation of the facts. And the third side of the triangle, Jill Rillington (Nicole Case), a broadcast journalist who hosts a reality-based TV show called Their Paths Crossed, has a mission in bringing these two men together at a sunny Mediterranean beach villa -- to fire up an on-camera confrontation for hungry TV viewers. Fort Worth's Allied Theatre has assembled a sharp and ready cast under director Jerry Russell to portray the unexpected consequences.
Ayckbourn specializes in showing prickly conversations between unlikely partners, but shout-downs between strangers and family members on daytime TV are far more outrageous. Still, Man of the Moment uses so-called "reality TV" more as a device than as a theme. Fickle fate is symbolized by the mercurial tastes of a national television audience. And fate is really the ageless culprit behind the switching of fortunes between Vic Parks (Mark Waltz), the former bank robber, and Douglas Beechey (Jim Covault), the shy "hero" who stepped in to protect a female clerk being held hostage. Fueled by his monstrous ego -- and through the miracle of public penance -- Parks has become a widely revered (and well-paid) TV spokesman on the subject of crime and rehabilitation, while Beechey has sunk back into obscurity to care for the wounded hostage, whom he has married. Jill Rillington, irked at what she sees as the disposability of heroes in modern society, takes the crew of Their Paths Crossed to Parks' vacation home, where his new wife (Suzi McLaughlin) and manager (Ashley Wood) stand by tensely. She negotiates separately with hero and villain of the original robbery to get her own vicarious need for vengeance satisfied.
Man of the Moment wouldn't succeed so well if not for Mark Waltz and Jim Covault in two tragicomic roles that give them lots of room to maneuver. Vic Parks and Douglas Beechey wield denial like shields to protect very different parts of themselves -- Vic to defend his need to be the noble penitent that the British public has tagged him, and Mr. Beechey to ward off the reality of the disappointing life that followed his short fling with fame. Vic feeds off conflict, in his personal life as well as in his TV shows; Mr. Beechey professes to despise it, even though his only notable experience with it has brought him (short-lived) public honors and a taciturn, if troubled, wife whom he deeply loves. Bringing Vic and Mr. Beechey together after 17 years seems to drive them further into the corners that their last meeting established rather than rile up the simmering resentments that Jill Rillington hopes are there. Waltz excels as a gruff-voiced, blue-ribbon asshole, an unlikely folk hero who squanders all his compassion and concern on the TV screen while belittling family, associates, and employees in his off-time, often with great cruelty. Squinty-eyed, stiff-backed Jim Covault, meanwhile, retains just enough of the mouse in this gentleman to reveal flashes of rodent-like opportunism -- the bank robbery has allowed him to scurry for shelter into the life of a grievously injured woman.
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As in many Ayckbourn scripts, there are passages of farcical comedy in Man of the Moment that don't quite jibe with the playwright's overriding moral concerns. A well-constructed, well-performed comedy can unload more truly startling insights into serious subjects than the best tragedies and docudramas. But the episodes of physical comedy here -- involving videotape rehearsals and a swimming pool that proves most unlucky for several cast members -- are diversions rather than believable situations. For the most part, they could be excised and more comic possibilities milked from the mismatched manners shown at this seaside villa. In those moments when each of the assembled strangers is trying to figure out what the other people want from them, Ayckbourn and Allied Theatre's superior cast triumph while showcasing the dissatisfactions that come from receiving what you wished for.