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The Ruby Sunrise

The Public Theater's production of Rinne Groff's play about the birth of television is challenging but rewarding. logo
Maggie Siff and Jason Butler Harner in The Ruby Sunrise
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
In Rinne Groff's The Ruby Sunrise, Oskar Eustis has chosen a challenging work for his directorial debut with The Public Theater in his new capacity as the company's artistic director. Groff, a founding member of the downtown experimental theater troupe Elevator Repair Service, has a background in edgy, innovative work that serves her in good stead here; she employs deconstructive techniques that challenge traditional play structure, yet the narrative remains coherent at all times. In this, she is aided by Eustis's astute direction and the brilliance of Eugene Lee's set design.

The play is divided into three parts (but only two acts). Part I is set in 1927 and tells the story of Ruby (Marin Ireland), a young woman attempting to construct the first working television. This initial section is seemingly entrenched in kitchen sink naturalism, yet there are a few notable stylistic ruptures. For example, at a crucial juncture in the relationship between Ruby and a young man named Henry (Patch Darragh), the set begins to rotate around the two actors as they hold a kiss. The effect is magical.

As Part II begins, the set completely breaks apart, opening up the cavernous space of the Public's Martinson Hall. Eustis takes full advantage of the depth of the playing area, transforming it into a television studio. Set in the year 1952, this segment of the play follows Lulu (Maggie Siff), Ruby's daughter, who is attempting to get her mother's story told through the medium of television. She hooks up with screenwriter Tad Rose (Jason Butler Harner), who puts Ruby's story on paper and also becomes romantically involved with Lulu.

Interestingly, the look that Harner sports as Tad is reminiscent of playwright Clifford Odets, whose most influential works have a stylistic similarity to the 1927 segment of The Ruby Sunrise and whose later career brought him to Hollywood, where he penned teleplays. The championing of the socially underprivileged, which Odets is known for, is at the heart of Lulu's own philosophy for television programming. "There are stories to tell about the little guy," she states, "the contributions they make or even fail to make."

The third part of The Ruby Sunrise, which makes up the entire second act, chronicles what happens to Tad's and Lulu's screenplay once it becomes compromised due to the red-baiting and blacklisting of the McCarthy era. In a cleverly self-referential bit, several of the actors who appeared in the first act now portray the actors in the television drama. We see behind-the-scenes arguments over rewrites and casting, the script in rehearsal, and -- in a stunning coup de théâtre -- the final product. Deb Sullivan's lush and atmospheric lighting design adds texture to the production. So do Deborah Newhall's costumes, which suggest the period while still seeming contemporary.

Ireland conveys all of Ruby's hard edges and determination yet still displays a combustible sexual chemistry with Darragh's Henry. She also turns in a quietly devastating performance as actress Elizabeth Hunter, who is supposed to play Ruby in the teleplay but doesn't get the chance. Siff is effective as Lulu -- passionate, level-headed, scheming, and emotionally vulnerable, sometimes simultaneously. Harner speaks as eloquently with his body as he does with his mouth, thereby enriching his characterization of Tad.

Unfortunately, veteran actor Richard Masur does not make a particularly strong impression as studio executive Martin Marcus. Darragh exudes boyish charm as Henry, although he fails to delve below the surface in his second act turn as actor Paul Benjamin. The same problem affects Audra Blaser, who plays actress Suzie Tyrone. Anne Scurria is good as Ruby's Aunt Lois in the first act but really shines in Act II when she takes on the role of actress Ethel Reed.

Groff's script is filled with humor and irony. As Ruby waxes poetic at one point, she remarks: "Television will be the end of war 'cause who could bear it? Who could bear to see war right in your own living room?" From our present-day vantage point, her words are chilling.

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