Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Roger & Gene
Space 55
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of The Last Romance

Matt Clarke, Shelly Trujillo, and Steve Wilcox
Photo courtesy of Space 55
Today, with most coverage of the arts in newspapers, magazines and TV having dried up, many people find out about what films are playing in theaters or on a streaming service and which ones are worth watching from online review sites like Rotten Tomatoes, TikTok videos, and Instagram influencer posts. However, for over 20 years from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, the highly successful TV shows hosted by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, "Sneak Previews" and "At the Movies," were where people tuned in to find out which movies to see. The duo popularized national network film reviews from their syndicated shows; getting two "thumbs up" reviews from them could spur a film on to box office success.

Phoenix playwright Ashley Naftule has crafted a drama that centers on Siskel and Ebert, entitled Roger & Gene, that is set in modern times, even though Siskel died in 1999 and Ebert in 2013. Naftule's play presents an intriguing concept, of which I'll try to avoid revealing too many spoilers, but it's overly long and repetitive and could use a decent amount of editing to tighten it up and make it more impactful than it currently is. Fortunately, the production at Space 55 features three talented actors, so while it's not perfect, it's well acted, interesting, and frequently entertaining.

Taking place in a room that is the set of their current review show, the plot focuses on how the friendship of the popular critics is fractured due to their constant bickering, arguing, and competitive nature. As the two men fight over which one of them gets to sit in the "good chair" on the set, they harass each other's physical shortcomings and discuss the confusing producer's notes they receive concerning what they need to change in their delivery in order to make their show resonate even more with the viewers. Their fellow critic, Pauline Kael, occasionally visits to tell them about her current situation reviewing shows on her own. We clearly see how there isn't much love between Roger and Gene and also quickly realize that, while this modern version of the Siskel and Ebert show is familiar, there are also many things that are slightly off and very different.

In a world where getting internet clicks and followers, and maximizing profits trump editorial content, Naftule's play poses an intriguing view into what Siskel and Ebert's show would possibly look like today. The dialogue is fresh and often funny and they incorporate modern topics into the piece, such as how artificial intelligence is beginning to take control of art. In a world where AI can compose a song in the style of a famous, dead composer and create art similar to a well-known artist in seconds, what will the future hold? Will movies and TV shows now just be composed of artificial beings programmed to act on cue? Will TV news hosts be an AI composite of a beloved and famous newscaster like Walter Cronkite in order to gain the highest ratings? But where is the heart and the compassion beneath the AI skin?

Naftule definitely brings up interesting ideas and poses an intriguing concept, but Roger & Gene takes too long to reveal its truths and Naftule also doesn't always adhere to the rules they've established for the characters and the situations. Naftule incorporates a fun Samuel Beckett-like absurdism in the piece, similar to Beckett's Waiting for Godot where nothing truly happens, there is only one setting, much repetition, and two men wait for a title character that never arrives. Here, the characters are also stuck in a repetitive void and there is plenty of absurdity in the piece. While we do get snippets of reviews of modern films from the duo, they aren't that authentic or sophisticated. Having Ebert say that Barbie was a bad movie because it was only made to sell toys seems odd when, since Naftule does bring up AI in the piece, they could have simply asked one of the AI bots to write a review of the film as if Ebert wrote it and get a response that would be more similar to what an Ebert negative review would have been like.

Fortunately, the Space 55 cast is wonderful. Matt Clarke and Steve Wilcox make wonderful sparring partners as Roger and Gene. While they don't attempt to mimic all of their traits, the two actors physically resemble Roger and Gene and they both create fresh, modern depictions of the two famous men. They also are excellent in depicting the boiling anger and hatred these two men have for each other, and their fight scenes, beautifully choreographed by Brian Maticic, are excellent. Pauline Kael wasn't as well known as Siskel and Ebert, so Shelly Trujillo has more lenience in putting her own stamp on this famous female film critic and she brings charm, warmth, a lot of sass, and a huge heart to the character.

Director BJ Garrett derives fresh performances from his cast and, while most of the staging is in the first row of the three rows of chairs that represent the TV show set to provide the audience an up-close view of the action, he uses the other rows and sides of the set as well, so the action is varied and less stagnant. Trujillo also designed the costumes, hair, and make-up which deliver familiar depictions of the famous hosting duo, including Ebert's thick mop of wavy hair and the sweater vests he was prone to wear and the changing wigs for the Kael character show the passage of time.

Roger & Gene is definitely a timely comedy in how it addresses the current state of the world with AI on the rise, but even with a gifted cast it needs to be tightened and edited to allow its strengths to shine more brightly and its absurdist comedy to sparkle more enthusiastically.

Roger & Gene, presented by Space 55, runs through June 16, 2024, at Metro Arts, 1700 N. 7th Ave, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit

Written by Ashley Naftule
Director: BJ Garrett
Stage Manager: Bob Peters
Costume, Hair & Makeup Design: Shelly Trujillo
Lighting Designer: John Perovich
Sound Design: Ashley Naftule
Fight Choreography: Brian Maticic

Cast: Roger: Matt Clarke
Gene: Steve Wilcox
Pauline: Shelly Trujillo