The Wizards of Quiz | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

The Wizards of Quiz


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe



National Jewish Theater

If a good play is one that stirs up more questions than it answers, then The Wizards of Quiz is a very good play. The problem is, too many of those questions concern the play itself and not its subject--the choices the playwright made rather than the story he tells. Though richly rendered in this hard-driving National Jewish Theater production, Steve Feffer's ingenious but muddled script, a bewildering mix of fact and fantasy, gets in the way of a fascinating story.

A sort of 20th-century revenge tragedy, The Wizards of Quiz purports to tell the true-life tale of Herbert Stempel, the disgraced former champion of the 1950s quiz show Twenty-One. After nine weeks of spectacular winnings--nearly $70,000--Stempel lost big, and intentionally, to Charles Van Doren, scion of a scholarly WASP clan. Later determined to vindicate himself and his intelligence, Stempel denounced "the wizard of quiz" as a fellow fraud who had been coached on the questions. At first Stempel was ignored, but three years later he testified against Van Doren in the 1959 congressional quiz-show hearings. (The vaguely opportunistic Stempel was in fact a bit player in a much larger fraud; revelations about the quiz show Dotto were the ones that triggered the cleanup.)

A 29-year-old student at City College of New York, Stempel brought a common touch to Twenty-One; the ex-GI with an IQ of 170 won on the basis of his mammoth knowledge and staggering memory. But when the show's ratings dropped, producer Daniel Enright brought in Van Doren, a Columbia University professor of English literature and author of three books whose boyish good looks and dignified mien quickly won him a national following. It was almost inevitable that Stempel, a nerdy egghead, would take a dive so the golden boy could win. (Stempel did walk away with $49,500, but he lost it in gambling and other debts, then was deserted by his aggrieved wife.)

So much is history--but Feffer means to write biography. Oddly he hands us too many Stempels, however: his vision is both cluttered and too neat. As he's endearingly played by Edward Jemison in Jeff Ginsberg's staging, Stempel is more than a sore loser who got even--he's feisty, ambitious, and a tad paranoid. Complaining that his head seethes with facts he must get out, he sees himself as a role model for thinkers, an "intellectual Sandy Koufax," and most important a role model for Jews--at least as long as he keeps winning. He says he always knew all the answers (not true) and so is convinced he didn't cheat; they only told him "when to miss." Most galling was to lose with a question whose answer Stempel knew well: What film won the 1955 Academy Award for best picture? (He'd seen Marty seven times.)

Feffer never manages to reconcile the many stories he tells about Stempel, whose contradictions frustrate rather than intrigue us. This whiz kid may say "I'd like to win on my own," but he doesn't reject the coaching he got. Instead he rationalizes it: "I thought it should all be coming to me." He turns on Van Doren when he realizes that NBC won't get him a job when he graduates or put him on another quiz show, but even then he takes money from the show's producer and signs a form that presumably should have silenced him. (Alas, Feffer never follows up on this brief scene.) The drama finally comes down to Stempel's word against Van Doren's. And we're asked to believe that Stempel, who supposedly had stalked and even assaulted his rival on the street, later convinces a fugitive Van Doren to return and spill his guts. In this overly whimsical encounter--possibly one of several fantasy scenes--they sit under a tree and decide to just "enjoy our brains." Stempel and Van Doren, it's implied, are both victims of TV's deceptive tendencies, but Stempel's weakness is to believe that "I could be a part of your world." Too pat.

The real Stempel must have been more complex and ambiguous than the combined champion of truth, Jewish martyr, and professional victim we see in Wizards (when Van Doren finally decides to come clean, he manages to flimflam the congressional panel with a self-serving pseudo-apology, and poor Stempel gets stomped on). Interestingly, the most damaging societal indictment in the play--that Stempel was a brainy Jew who had to be put in his place--comes only from Stempel himself and only in private conversations. Though the accusation carries the weight of condemnation, curiously it's been assigned to a man whose mental equilibrium is often put in doubt. (It seems more accurate to say that this schlemiel was chosen as a contestant because he was ordinary, but rejected when his blandness hurt the ratings.) It doesn't help that Feffer saddles Stempel with delusional visits from Paddy Chayevsky's fictional Marty; these are gratuitous surrealistic elements in a play that overall is realistic.

Faced with so contradictory a character, Jemison falls back on pathos and achieves it extraordinarily well: this compelling portrait of a sad-faced, almost lovable loser papers over a ton of loose ends. Jemison is every kid who gets caught and wants all the other cheaters to suffer too. The fact that we never see Stempel choose not to cheat is as artfully concealed by Jemison's magical acting as it is clumsily avoided by the script.

Backing Jemison up are deft performances from Dev Kennedy as unctuous quiz-show host Jack Barry (and several cunning cameos), Richard Wharton as the amazingly accessible TV producer, David Mink as a rabid anti-Semitic congressman, Debra Rich as Stempel's less-than-helpful helpmate, and Warren Davis as his shy barber friend. Fittingly, Christopher Howe plays Van Doren as a natural people's hero, revealing his rather unattractive human side only in a self-serving second-act speech in which Van Doren lamely distinguishes between the doubt a true intellectual experiences and the antiseptic certainty required of a quiz whiz.

As squeaky-clean as a 50s car showroom, Richard and Jacqueline Penrod's spiffy glass-and-chrome TV set (its pun very much intended) cleverly tranforms the quiz show's booths into congressional witness boxes. This is poetic justice at its most straightforward.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.

Add a comment