A teenage Indiana gal in 1927 almost invents television; 25 years later, her daughter tries to get her story told in a live-broadcast TV drama. Few plays have premises as crackbrained and outré as Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise, or as dramatically futile. Yet it says something for Groff’s talent that she pursues her idiotic premise to its logical end, and that she holds your attention with it, despite all the ancillary mistakes she commits along the way, some of them abetted by Oskar Eustis’s on-and-off direction. An idealist’s hope, smartly hedged about with doubts and ironies, is Groff’s subject, and it’s only reasonable that her passionate commitment to her tale should inspire an analogous hope in her reviewers. Of the innumerable stupid disasters that have dominated the current Off-Broadway season, The Ruby Sunrise is far and away the most promising.
Ruby (nicknamed “Sunrise” because of her golden hair) believes that television will bring world peace; her three older brothers were killed in World War I and the flu epidemic that followed. “Who could bear to see war,” she asks, “right in your living room?” Family pressures and competition from corporate-backed professionals beat her barn-built model to the patent, but she transmits her unfulfilled dream to her equally obstinate and unscrupulous daughter, who has to buck commercialism, the blacklist, and (like Ruby) even her own boyfriend’s helpful intentions, to get Ruby’s story on the air. It’s hard to tell how seriously Groff means us to take her yarn. Like her storytelling, her viewpoint is often blurry, and one’s never sure to what extent the whole thing might be a spoof. But inside the blur, her writing’s feisty, and seconded by several lively performances. Its very cockeyedness supplies its hope: You’d never find something this weirdly off-kilter on mainstream TV.