Playwright Rinne Groff entwines several heavy themes in her new show, The Ruby Sunrise, currently playing at the Public Theater: social awareness, politics, family divisiveness and emerging technology. Her heart is in the right place, but her message is misplaced. In telling the story of the dawn of television and its implications, Groff’s story is simultaneously dwarfed and underwhelmed by sheer virtue of being told in a theater.
Not that the production is not handsomely staged, as is to be expected from current Public director Oscar Eustis (here in his artistic debut). He has helmed a well-constructed production, albeit a safe choice without much edge to it. Groff’s plot – in which characters exist in parallel worlds from two separate generations that she eventually fuses together to mildly successful effect – is structurally complicated but also elementary when it comes to its ideology.
We first see Ruby (Marin Ireland), the title character, in 1927. She is hiding out in her Aunt Lois’ (Anne Scurria) Indiana barn, having escaped what Groff implies is an abusive father, Ruby is a tomboy and stubborn as a mule, butting heads with college student and romantic foil Henry (Patch Darragh), also a boarder at Aunt Lois’, as she uses her scientific know-how (inherited from her engineer father) to pioneer a new invention – the television. Her motivation is not misguided, but it is too idealistic. Ruby feels that if people from countries around the world could see each other, they could broker understandings rather than ever going to war.
Marin Ireland and Patch Darragh in a scene from The Ruby Sunrise Credit Michal Daniel
Unfortunately for the couple, the first part of Act I ends with not one but two bombshells. Henry must tell Ruby that the television has already been patented, and Ruby tells Henry that she is carrying his child. Eustis abruptly shifts the action to a television studio in 1952. With McCarthyism as the backdrop, script coordinator Lulu (Maggie Siff) and up-and-coming writer Tad Rose (Jason Butler Harner), who work together to televise Ruby’s story and meet the approval of politically edgy producer Martin Marcus (Richard Masur).
It comes as no surprise to the audience that Lulu is championing Ruby’s story because Ruby was her mother, though Groff seems to telegraph it as though this is some sort of revelation. The majority of Sunrise then deals with the backstage chicanery in writing, proposing, casting, and filming Ruby’s story, much of which feels derivative. In fact, the Lulu/Tad romance in Sunrise seems to echo that of a Sunset… Sunset Blvd., that is, in which ill-fated scripters Joe and Betty also fell in love.
As Groff’s parallel plots ultimately interlock, one cannot help but think they feel slightly amateurish. Eustis gets competent performances from his lead actors (and excellent ones from Masur and Scurria, who also appears as an alcoholic actress in the second act), but all the characters are one-dimensional, stock types. And she transforms the audience into a studio audience rather than a theatrical one. This is an odd choice, for it thickens the fourth wall and lessens the audience’s role in what occurs in front of them.
With Sunrise, Eustis goes off to a good start, but not a running one. Groff’s play sings a hopeful tune, but only hits the easiest of notes. Let’s hope this is a sign of greater things to come for both artists.Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.