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Can "Good Television" Still Be Moral? A new play scours the ethics of reality TV

By ERIC GRODE

Call it a case of biting the hand that feeds his wife.

"My wife works in reality television," says Rod McLachlan, the longtime actor and now playwright. "And at a certain point, I noticed that I was getting called about fewer and fewer jobs as she was getting called more and more."

On one level, then, McLachlan's new play Good Television serves as a bit of revenge. The show, which is now at Atlantic Theatre's Stage 2, takes aim at a reality show very much like the A&E hit Intervention, in which (relatively) telegenic addicts are confronted by their family and loved ones while the cameras catch every sob and accusation. (Intervention is one of several reality shows that McLachlan's wife, Soodabeh Khosropur, has produced.)

But McLachlan, who in addition to his television roles has had small parts in films like Magnolia and appeared in several of Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre productions on Broadway, didn't want to take the easy way out in terms of lampooning the creators of these shows. "I wanted to make sure these weren't shallow, evil men and women," he says. "The people I knew through my wife came from good schools and had good values. This is the work they can get."

The title of Good Television works in two ways. The obvious one---the definition of whatever will keep eyeballs glued to the set---comes into play in all the predictable ways. But the creators of Rehabilitation, the fake show depicted on stage, also have their subjects' long-term health in mind, which is one reason why the lead character, Connie (Kelly McAndrew), keeps such a tight rein on who deserves to be featured. A train wreck of a family like the one depicted in this production may be tailor-made to match the first definition but incapable of meeting the second. So which "good" wins?

"It's a really fascinating piece," says Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic (and himself an actor who made his own transition within the company). "You've got this show based on the premise of helping people, and the intriguing thing for me is matching that with the required entertainment value. Where do you draw the line between the two?"

McLachlan, 53, has worked as an acting teacher for years, so he's used to taking a critical stance toward his fellow performers. But watching his own script go through the same process was an entirely different story. "The truth is, it was very emotional for me," he says. "Within the same short paragraph, I would first beam with pride and then say, 'Oh, no!'"

Despite having written a full-length adaptation of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist and a few other short pieces, McLachlan is making his off-Broadway debut as a playwright with Good Television. "I held off from taking this step for a while, probably for too long," he says. "But at some point, you have to get over the anxiety of influence and the anxiety of quality."

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Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program.

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia