Lively ‘Game Show’ at New Theatre poised, quick-witted, charming

Think of it as a show within a show. Or, to be precise, a TV show within a show.

The New Theatre’s lively production of "Game Show," an inventive entertainment by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton that never quite lives up to its potential, is a crowd-pleasing romp that strikes a delicate balance between scripted material, ad libs and always unpredictable audience participants.

The conceit is that we – the viewers at the New Theatre – are members of a studio audience for a TV show called, logically enough, "Game Show." Big screens on either side of the proscenium offer real-time video of the events happening onstage as actors playing cameramen operate functioning television cameras.

The New Theatre production, directed by Richard Carrothers, is anchored by guest star Charles Shaughnessy, the British-born veteran actor who is every bit as poised, quick-witted and charming as you could want him to be as the TV show’s host, Troy Richards.

As Troy, Shaughnessy sometimes ambles into the audience to play a “Lucky Lotto” quiz with a spectator. But the most interesting action occurs when contestants – real theatergoers – are brought onstage three at a time to compete by answering questions such as: What food are astronauts not allowed to eat before space travel? What part of the male preying mantis must he sacrifice when he mates? What part of the snail contains its reproductive organs?

An actual story is woven into all this audience interaction. The show’s producer, Ellen Ryan (Jan Chapman), is busy doing back-stabbing deals to get Troy off the show by manipulating ratings and convincing him to play hardball for a raise, calculating that she can replace him with her secret lover, Steve Fox (Jim Korinke), the show’s warm-up host. It all blows up in her face, thanks to a couple of technically savvy cameramen (Craig Benton and Peter DeFaria). Her fall from grace also opens an opportunity for young Johnny Wilderman (Todd Carlton Lanker), a production assistant who dreams of someday being a game show host.

Much of the story unfolds in phone conversations with unseen characters, including the head of the network (voiced by Benton) and the head of HBO (voiced hilariously by DeFaria). There’s also the voice of Penny, the forlorn receptionist who has just been jilted by one of the camera operators, and the vocal performance is credited to Georgiana Spelvin, an actress with whom I’m unfamiliar. The spelling of her name is very close to that of a notorious 1970s porn star, so perhaps the producers are having a little joke.

That would certainly track with a show full of hidden jokes and multiple surprises, some of which are so effective that I dare not give them away. Suffice to say the show delights in teasing the audience and toying with the boundary between illusion and reality.

The actors are solid. Korinke chalks up another nicely handled supporting performance and Chapman seems to enjoy her status as the villain of the piece. Benton doesn’t have much to do but he does it well. And DeFaria, a Chicago actor making his Kansas City debut, brings agreeably quirky energy to the stage. Carlton is occupied with escorting guests to and from their seats most of the time, although he makes the best of his big moment late in the show. And veteran comic actor Tim Cormack, as the television director, says virtually nothing – mainly because he’s seated at an electronic console upstage where he literally directs the live video.

The technical credits are up to the New Theatre’s usual high standards. Scott Heineman’s asymmetrical scenic design for the TV studio serves the action well, although something bugged me about the second-floor dressing-room set. It felt a little like it was wedged into the remaining available space after he got done with the studio and break room on the lower level. Mary Traylor (costumes), Randy Winder (lights) and Roger Stoddard (sound), all make important contributions to this visually glossy production.