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screwmachine/eyecandy at PushPush Theater

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PushPush Theater's memorably titled screwmachine/eyecandy depicts an ordinary middle-class couple, Dan and Maura Brown (Randy Havens and Claire Christie), who find their marital trust, personal dignity and faith in the American way of life tested under enormous pressure. The venue? A TV program called "The Big Bob Show" in Burbank, Calif.

Subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob," CJ Hopkins' darkly comedic play takes what would seem like an out-of-date, obvious target – "wacky" 1970s-style game shows – and pushes it into surprising territory that's at first hilarious, then horrifying. It's as if Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter had eschewed the theater of menace to work with Chuck Woolery or Monty Hall.

Matt Stanton plays host Big Bob as a glib jokester whose questions and patter turn increasingly hostile. While beaming at the folks at home and extolling the show's "consumer items," he taunts Dan for his dreary-sounding job, hits on Maura, loses his temper, claims he was kidding and peppers the couple with unanswerable questions like "It is or it isn't?" Stanton sustains a remarkable level of intensity for the 80-minute play, steering the tone from merely frivolous to sinister.

The announcer describes the game as having "No rules!" and Havens and Christie both project the confusion and dawning resentment of ordinary, hardworking Americans who discover that the system is rigged. Havens effectively nurses Dan's wounded pride, but Christie offers an energetic, ultimately devastating performance as Maura tries to process their predicament. An eager competitor – "It's the winning itself that's so exciting, even more than what you win" – Maura initially makes excuses for Big Bob's behavior, until she finds the situation utterly nightmarish. Her role wouldn't be half as affecting if Christie didn't make Maura so credible.

PushPush Theater frequently bills itself as a workshop theater and in the program notes director Tim Habeger describes screwmachine/eyecandy as the equivalent of a work in progress that may get an "actual run" in 2009. Frankly, the distinction is lost on me. screwmachine/eyecandy may be a little unpolished and has room for more elaborate props and audio-visual effects, but it packs more punch than many "real" plays I've seen in 2008. The playwright may pass an unnecessarily harsh anti-materialist judgment on his characters, but PushPush turns screwmachine/eyecandy into a compelling spectacle. Too late, the Browns discover that the price is wrong.

screwmachine/eyecandy. Through Dec. 20, with performances Dec. 29 and 31. $15-$35. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. PushPush Theater, 121 New St., Decatur. 404-377-6332. www.pushpushtheater.com.

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