Every audience member experiences every play — or movie, or performance art piece, or symphony, or puppet show — through their unique lens. A 72-year-old, African-American lesbian from Atlanta will have a wildly different perspective on a theatrical production than a prepubescent Chinese girl, whose worldview will, in turn, differ markedly from that of a twentysomething, MAGA-hatted, Idaho white boy bravely attempting his first keg stand. Point of view is everything and never more so than with regard to the Denver Center Theatre Company’s latest, a dark comedy called The Whistleblower.
How much you enjoy The Whistleblower will vary in inverse proportion to how politically correct you fancy yourself to be.
Those who consider themselves less politically correct will marvel at playwright Itamar Moses’ aware and uproarious study of the effect radical truth has on protagonist Eli (Karl Miller) and his friends and family, the targets of his truth-telling. The more politically correct in the crowd will be too busy composing angry tweets and blog posts about The Whistleblower being nothing more than a white-male-privilege wet dream.
The play opens with Eli and his agent, Dan (Landon G. Woodson), pitching a TV series called The Whistleblower to a producer named Richard (Bill Christ). Richard loves the idea of a show in which the main character infiltrates a new company or organization each week, uncovers all its dirty secrets, and then blows the whistle on them. He’s no sooner agreed to champion and fund the project when Eli, totally unexpectedly and somewhat mysteriously, declines Richard’s golden ticket offer after realizing in a moment of clarity that being a successful TV writer isn’t actually what he wants to do with his life.
How does Eli think he should spend his life instead? He’s existentially uncertain, but he does know that it starts with radical honesty. Eli walks out of the pitch session and heads straight home to break up with his actress girlfriend, Allison (Meredith Forlenza). He then embarks on a journey to drop some unfiltered truth bombs on his parents (Bill Christ in a second roll and Leslie O’Carroll), his oldest friend, Jed (Landon G. Woodson in his second roll), Jed’s girlfriend (Meredith Forlenza in her second roll), and ultimately Eli’s long lost love, the one that got away, Eleanor (Allison Jean White).
Along the way, Eli reconnects with Max (Ben Beckley), a once-driven, now dropped-out paranoiac. As Eli and Max wax philosophical in Max’s boat, the “Barbaric Yawp,” the Denver Center’s Space Theatre’s stage fills with fog. As the Space Theatre is a theatre in the round performance space, the fog ends up lapping at the edges where stage meets seats, creating a mesmerizingly realistic illusion of rolling waves. Hats off to set designer Lisa M. Orzolek and production manager Kate Coltun.
Far from being a one-dimensional wish-fulfillment about a white guy proclaiming what he perceives as immutable truth to the somnambulant masses, The Whistleblower challenges its audience to question Eli’s sanity and motivations. Is Eli enlightened or opportunistic, sane or swinging by a thread? Conveying that uncertainty, that ambiguity, takes a skilled actor, and Miller doesn’t disappoint. He convinces as much when Eli is calmly dismantling his loved ones’ preconceived notions about their places in the universe as he does when Eli is clearly staring into the abyss, and the abyss isn’t blinking.
Seeing Bill Christ on stage once again at the Denver Center is the purest of pleasures. He and O’Carroll couldn’t be more relaxed in their roles, to great comic effect. Woodson, Forlenza and White show exeptional range as they step in and out of their different characters.
Call it the Electric PC Acid Test. Call it a dark lark. Call it what you will, but whether you’re in need of a belly laugh or your daily outrage fix, The Whistleblower has some truth to lay on you.
ON THE BILL: The Whistleblower. Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Space Theater, 1400 Curtis St., Denver, denvercenter.org, $37 and up. Through March 10.