Dead on Arrival

The mysteries of death, with all its creepy accoutrements, can be weirdly fascinating -- even the stuff of some wonderfully bizarre theater. Take last year's Stiff...undertaking Undertaking at Theater LaB Houston. With its silly, maudlin characters and its slapstick clowning that involved such things as a grave-making contest and a corpse who refused to stay still, the European touring troupe showed just how wild and funny all the sad stuff of death can be.

This year, Theater LaB has brought us an entirely new take on the dead with Douglas Mitchell's A Necessary End. As in Stiff...undertaking Undertaking, Mitchell spins comedy from our creeped-out fears about death. Unfortunately, it has none of the lush whimsy or fiery performances of last year's show. Mitchell, who does double duty as a Rice linguistics professor, has stitched together two thin one-acts, each focusing on a neurotic upper-middle-class couple with very strange notions about the big D. Under William Hardy's direction, the play attempts to show the absurdity of our fears of what Shakespeare has called our "necessary end." But these scripts push absurdity into the realm of the inexplicable. The results make for a woefully misguided production.

In A Surplus of Charity, Mitchell introduces us to Cyrus (William Hardy), a wealthy tractor sales executive, who comes home to his big comfortable house one day with outrageous news. Out of the blue, Cyrus has quit his handsome job so that he can spend his last decades concentrating on "making proper arrangements" for his wife's funeral. The fact that his wife is 20 years younger than he is doesn't seem to discourage Cyrus in the least. He strides through the door with a brown sack of books on such things as ancient burial grounds and the "private mausoleums in Galveston," proudly announcing his plans to his pretty wife. The woman, who bears the inexplicable name of Spunk (Susan Shofner), is understandably miffed. Worrying over their finances, she gently chides him: "I've grown fond of my evening matinee. I'd hate to trade it in for a six-pack of beer." She wants him to get his job back. He won't hear of it and even threatens her with divorce when she informs him that she's always wanted to be cremated.

This cool and rather lengthy exchange -- it's not even bickering, as it's done with such good manners -- is clearly meant to come off as a sort of theater of the absurd. The couple walk about with their martini glasses held high, smiling with good-natured irritation at each other. But as amusing as some of these exchanges might be, they are so utterly illogical and unmotivated that no amount of crisp direction or lively acting could make sense out of them.

The second one-act, It's Hard to Say, is the more finished of the two. A pair of well-off siblings bicker over what to do about their mother, who appears to be dead as a doornail. Despite Mother's obviously gray color, Herbert (Tom Prior) refuses to accept what everyone else can plainly see. And so he's been "taking care" of his mother for years. Fed up at last, he has Mom delivered to the posh apartment of sister Babs (Leslie Maness) so he can travel the world. What follows is a long argument over who has to bear responsibility for the old gal, for no one is ready to bury her.

Of course, if we are to buy this exchange, we must first accept the preposterous idea that Herbert and Babs can't tell Mom is really dead. They twist their worried hands together, wishing they had an "expert" to confirm her condition. Even the maid (Joyce Murray) can see the woman is dead. Thus Herbert and Babs are either insane or very stupid, and since both seem able to handle themselves quite well in their upper-middle-class worlds -- Herbert is off to Japan, and Babs has an active social life -- their behavior is simply ridiculous.

Prior and Maness still manage to wring as much life as possible out of this awkward tale. Prior's cool reserve is perfectly suited to the absurdist milieu of the script, and Maness has so much innate comic timing that she manages to find a pulse in the material.

Certainly, Hardy's competent direction isn't to blame for this failed production. And the show's five performers are some of Houston's most capable. The only real mystery is why these plays ever were produced in the first place.

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Lee Williams