Herbert Stempel is the first winner of the big money quiz show 21 and the man who took a dive for the scandal's more famous victor, Charles Van Doren. Orchestrated by 21's producer Dan Enright—a television incarnate, an abstract force of evil who persuades both Stempel and Van Doren to cheat - we watch both of the exceptionally gifted contestants fall from grace and analyze each of their weaknesses. Stempel sells his soul for an attempt to be an actor; Van Doren tries to break away from his life governed by strict rules and expectations from a family with ideals he struggles to meet. Enright, also serving as the play's glib, seductive narrator, has the uncanny ability to reveal each of the contestants' vulnerabilities and manipulates them to a profitable end, the audience siding with him at every scheming turn. At the end of Congress' probe into the scandal, Charles Van Doren confesses his guilt as Stempel throws his head back and sobs the bitter laughter of revenge as well as defeat. Van Doren retreats to his father's country house, and in a touching moment, like a stroke victim recovering his use of words, identifies all of the species of trees that surround the house, as he reconnects to his family.
A probing study of greed and power, exploring America's need for a hero; the transformation of the new medium of television as a subversive power; and the corrupting influence of fame. Based on the real events of the legendary Congress inquiry into the Quiz-Show scandals of the 1950s. "…Greenberg has lavished on his densely themed work some gorgeous language, keen wit, and smart thinking…" —Village Voice. " Mr. Greenberg has provided some lovely, subtly shaded moments for Mr. Van Doren and Mr. Stempel in which the men realize that television has forever changed their sense of what they know and how they know it." —NY Times.