On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.

2006_04_arts_screwmachine.jpgThe “Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and [X]” tag has to be in the running for most-used (some would say worn out) subtitle. Fortunately, C.J. Hopkins’ screwmachine/eyecandy, which adds “love Big Bob” in the slot, is both dizzyingly disturbing and unique in its own right, while also living up to the Dr. Strangelove tradition of morbidly funny criticism of contemporary society’s values (or apparent lack thereof), so that this use of a sort of worn-out title is easily forgiven. I know a lot of people who aren’t very interested in theater (shocking!) – who, if they think of it at all, only conjure up Shakespeare for plays or Phantom of the Opera for musicals or…you get the picture. screwmachine/eyecandy is the kind of show I wish I could take these people to, to show them just how messed up – gory and offensive, in-your-face and thrillingly live – theater can be. Aesthetically and topically, it’s not for everyone, but it represents a strain of theatre that’s taking the responsibility of developing and keeping pace with the times, keeping a fighting spirit alive in what too often seems like a dying art.

To get off my soapbox and describe a little more about what the show involves, well, first of all it’s directed by John Clancy and stars several of his usual suspects: David Calvitto and Bill Coelius, who were both recently in Goner, and Clancy’s wife Nancy Walsh, who was just in Fatboy but whom I first saw, and was blown away by, in the one-woman play Cincinnati. If you know anything about these plays or about Clancy in general, you already have a good idea of what you’re in for with screwmachine/eyecandy. The story at its heart is that of Dan and Maura Brown (Coelius and Walsh), who are contestants on a kind of hopped-up gameshow hosted by the seriously unbalanced Big Bob (Calvitto). The Browns are basically just earnest, unassuming regular folks who are so, so excited to be on TV, but in the name of ratings Big Bob suspends the game's normal rules and proceeds to pick the pair apart mercilessly, exposing their (and his) seemingly ideal American existence for the heartless, consumption-driven nightmare it is. After declaring it to be a day of anything-goes, Bob confuses the hell out of Dan and Maura (and the audience) with rapid-fire, off-the-wall questions about their personal lives and beliefs, catching them off guard at every turn in a pathetically unequal battle of wits and wills.

Though the play itself wears a little thin at times, the actors more than redeem it. Calvitto, who struck me as a little too nutty in Goner, is perfect here, giving Bob a bug-eyed, manic energy that is frequently hilarious, especially when you think about him in comparison with, say Bob Barker, but it’s an energy that can and does change without a second’s notice to become black and menacing. Coelius plays Dan as almost aggressively normal, a sweet if sort of clueless guy who’s eager to please and does his best to play along with Bob for a little while, until he finally notices how crazy Big Bob is acting and is filled with a righteous but tragic indignation. Walsh, as Maura, acts as the audience’s main link to the strange world of the play; like Dan, she is eager to please, and she plays along with Bob longer than he does, but her quivering intensity, which gives way gradually to quiet bewilderment and finally total existential terror, simultaneously influences and mirrors the way one feels while watching the play. As Walsh showed in Cincinnati, she has a powerful instinct for how to make an internal crisis palpable to the viewer. Hopkins’ script goes too far at times and can seem to be beating the audience over the head with both the general concept and execution, and specific commentary on contemporary American culture, just as surely as Dan is bludgeoned by Bob’s anti-Vanna White sidekick in a pretty horrifying manner. But screwmachine/eyecandy is far, far from theatre as usual, and in the end the way it confronts you and forces you to consider the uncomfortable reality that it presents so surreally is memorably effective, in part because it is so brutal.

59E59 Theaters // 59 E. 59th St. // Through Apr. 40, Wed.-Sat. 8:15pm, Sun. 7:15pm // Tickets via Ticket Central