Local author and playwright David Ohle describes his dark comedy "Crank Calls," as a sitcom about family values "a family that values nothing."
During the play, the ultimate good-hearted TV family encounters the ultimate reality-based television show, a live execution. Once the family figures out how to profit from the death, no one cares that someone is lying dead in the living room.
"This essentially is about Americans' attitudes toward death," Ohle said. "You can't relate to the real death. You are more interested in the TV death."
"Crank Calls" will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 5-6, as well as 2 p.m. Sunday and March 7 at the Lawrence Arts Center, Ninth and Vermont. It is the first show to be staged by Chameleon Productions, a newly-formed production group.
DIRECTOR Robert Baker says the play is as much about capital punishment as capitalizing on punishment.
The play begins as Danny and Jenny Goodson settle down to watch the televised execution of Roy LaFleur, accused of mass murder. Jenny, a schoolteacher, objects to the execution.
Then their long-lost, adopted son Marlon returns home with two sidekicks: an aging expatriate writer named James Seagraves and a high-strung channeler named Gloria.
"It turns out that (LaFleur) really had not done the crime, but the only person that could give him an alibi was a woman named Gloria," Ohle said. "They soon realize that this is the missing witness."
Calls to authorites go unheeded. In the meantime, the Goodson's have been entered in a $20,000 pool on when LaFleur will die. When they win, the group begins to argue over how to split the booty.
"BY THE time this play ends, none of the characters have a moral center, if any of them had one," Baker said. "They have shifted to the point where all they care about is how to captialize on this guy's death."
To make the farce work, Ohle used a group of widely drawn characters.
For example, Marlon is a trigger-happy clone of Marlon Brando. Ohle based James Seagrave on Lawrence resident and longtime friend William Burroughs.
"He's just a character. He can just double you over in laughter once you know him," he said of Burroughs, the author of "Naked Lunch" and several other beat-generation novels.
"I just thought that he would make a fabulous character for a play. He's a ready-made character. A lot of the lines in Seagrave's mouth are things that he (Burroughs) already has said or written."
OHLE EVEN signed on to play Seagrave in the production.
"A couple people auditioned for the role, but they could quite get it," the 39-year-old author said. "I'm going to be doing a lot of his gestures."
Much of the play pivots on Seagraves, the only person in the play who Jenny respects, Baker said.
"He is the one that convinces her to take the money. His moral center is focused more on practicality," he said.
While arguing over the money and how to turn the tragedy into a made-for-TV movie, Marlon trips and accidentally shoots himself.
"So now everybody is like, it has to be a bigger movie (to include Marlon's death). And isn't it too bad that Marlon can't play himself," Baker said.
The play ends as the four living characters get wrapped up in a rebroadcast of "Gone With The Wind."
OHLE IS a widely published fiction writer. His work has appeared in The Missouri Review, as well as Harper's magazine and Esquire.
Ohle met Burroughs through a mutual friend and has edited some of the writer's recent novels, including 1985's "Queer" and 1989's "Interzone."
Ohle began writing plays several years ago and said he hopes Chameleon Productions will stage more of his work. Baker said the group will present all kinds of performances, including performance art and music revues.
"I don't think it will be a straight theatrical company or a straight production company," he said. "I still hear from artists around town who say that there aren't enough opportunities to put up their work."
Ohle said that he shopped the "Crank Calls" script around to several local theater companies, without much response. Ohle and Baker decided to stage the play together and created Chameleon Productions with the support of several friends.
"I'VE READ a lot of scripts, and so far this is the best," Baker said of Ohle's play. "It has a timely theme, and it's very cleverly written."
"It's loaded with jokes, but at the same time they have a sinister side," Ohle said. "I expect you to have a kind of embarrassed laughter."