Suicide, as a general rule, is not a funny subject.
In an era when we have gotten better than ever about promoting awareness of depression and other mental health concerns that often underlie the decision to take one’s own life, finding comedy in such a decision – or its aftermath – seems, on the surface, an exercise in poor taste.
Even so, it can theoretically be forgiven that “Death Before Cocktails,” a new play by Laureen Vonnegut now in its World Premiere run at Theatre 68 in NoHo, uses just such a tragedy as the jumping off point for its comedy.
After all, dark humor has its place; while it may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s an important, time-honored tool for facing the harsh realities of our existence. Handled skillfully, it has the power to make us more resilient, to help us find peace with things we can’t control, and to strengthen us in our struggle to change the things we can.
The key word in that sentence, though, is “skillfully.”
Vonnegut’s grimly comedic piece is set at a Palm Springs cocktail lounge, which has been designated in the suicide note of a famous actress as the location for an impromptu wake with a very limited – and very calculated – guest list. Her twin, a not-so-famous science fiction writer named Lana (Ariel Hart), arrives as instructed with a boxful of sister’s ashes in hand; meeting her there are two former lovers – a washed-up rock star named Clive (Paul Keany), and the bar’s owner, Will (Tom Kearney). Rounding out the gathering are Clive’s “friend,” flamboyant dentist Mario (Damien Diaz), and their waitress Ruth (Rose Hunter) – who also happens to be Will’s daughter. This awkwardly-mixed quintet is forced by circumstance to hash over their unresolved conflicts, as they try to figure out why they have been brought together for this occasion and come to terms with their grief – not just over the loss of their dear departed, but over all the failures and unfulfilled dreams of their own lives.
Given its provocatively ambiguous title – particularly in combination with Argent Lloyd’s “galaxy black” set and its sparse highlights of utilitarian furnishings and garishly neon-esque signage, the production at first invites speculation that we are in for one of those avant-garde, absurdist theatre pieces of a bygone era; we suspect that, much like the characters in Sartre’s “No Exit” or Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the inhabitants of this unnamed, barely formed space are in a kind of limbo.
Though this may be true in a metaphorical sense, Vonnegut’s play is more connected with conventional reality than it is with the esoteric thought-scapes of the surrealist forebears that likely influenced it. These are not characters trapped in some waiting room of the after-life, doomed to grapple with their egos and their expectations for all eternity. They are meant to be flesh-and-blood, and they must do their grappling in the real world.
Unfortunately, it still feels like an eternity.
Though Vonnegut’s script is full of interesting ideas and savvy observations, it’s also full of repetition. The characters discuss the same subjects, albeit in different configurations, over and over; they have the same arguments, they get hung up on the same sticking points, and they come back to the same dysfunctional blend of self-pity and projected recrimination with which they started out. While it’s no doubt part of the play’s intention to observe this looping behavioral pattern at work, there is a point somewhere past the middle of its 95-minute running time when it becomes more tiresome than illuminating. That effect is compounded by the characters’ self-absorbedness; clinging to fantasies that never came to fruition, they spend the bulk of the play trying to prevent the bursting of their own respective bubbles while trying to stick pins into each other’s. They are, for the most part, insufferable.
All of this could be said to be part of the point; but what makes it more unpalatable is that, all too often, the play falls back on cliché. This is disappointing with regard to its discussions of mental health – an important central theme – which seem to exist without awareness of any current understanding of the issue; but it is especially glaring when the play delves into the subject of sexuality, which it does frequently. One character claims to be bisexual, another is gay; there are ample opportunities within the show for each of them to give voice to authentic issues and experiences, and there are moments when it almost happens – only to devolve into oft-repeated cultural tropes that are, at best, dated and, at worst, offensive. The reinforcing of attitudes that contribute to “bi-erasure” is particularly troubling.
Not that the straights are given any fairer treatment; hetero-normative bigotry, middle-American prurience, and the jaded cynicism of the sophisticated intelligentsia all get their moments in the spotlight. Any good will or empathy that may be generated for these people is quickly squandered, and most of the audience will likely be past caring by the time the show reaches its conclusion – which seems more motivated by running time than any actual developments in the action, and is utterly predictable for anyone who has ever seen a play or movie about people ruminating on death.
Not that any of this is the fault of the actors. Hart brings a lot of honesty and presence to her performance as Lana; she effectively allows the character’s deep insecurities to show through the well-put-together exterior she presents. She is at the center of the piece throughout, and she occupies that place with confidence; it’s a shame the twin never appears in the show – it would be a treat to see this actress tackle a double role. Kearney is appropriately douche-y as Clive, yet still manages to be somewhat endearing; and Diaz, refreshingly theatrical as Mario, provides an over-the-top element to his scenes that almost compensates for the number of stereotypes he is saddled with representing.
Considering its players’ talents, the fact that “Death Before Cocktails” comes off as a one-note affair must be laid at the feet of its directors, Alex Rotaru and Vonnegut herself. While they have done an admirable job in guiding their actors to honest performances, they seem to have paid insufficient attention to giving shape to the overall piece; by staying rooted “in the moment,” they have left out the necessary rises and falls of action that make a play into a narrative rather than just a series of small moments that bleed into each other. It’s also likely that Vonnegut, as the playwright, is too close to the material to have been truly objective in the directorial process. Indeed, many of the play’s flaws could be remedied with judicious cutting; tightened to something around 70 minutes, it could be an entirely different – and much more enjoyable – experience.
Still, editing would not resolve the show’s deeper problems. Its approach towards the issues of sexuality and mental health would need to be re-examined and brought up to date with contemporary attitudes. To do so would require considerable rewriting – and in the end, given the underwhelming payoff delivered by the play’s final moments, that much work might be more trouble than it’s worth.
“Death Before Cocktails” runs thru May 13th at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA. 91601. Performances are Friday & Saturday 8:00PM and Sunday 7:00PM. Tickets & info at: http://buytickets.at/deathbeforecocktails/155994