Dead on Arrival

At ATC, fine performances and honest laughs can't resurrect Elaine May's loose, disjointed script

George Is Dead is in critical condition.

Arizona Theatre Company has followed its beautifully crafted Kite Runner with Elaine May's roughly stitched-together comedy. On opening night, the patient—er, play—demonstrated a fine sense of humor but, unfortunately, a compromised state of health.

In theory, George Is Dead has everything working for it. May, the acclaimed Oscar-nominated writer, director and actor, not only penned the piece but directs. Marlo Thomas—yes, that Marlo Thomas, with Emmy and Golden Globe honors to her credit—lends her celebrity to the effort.

The rest of the small cast is accomplished and performs solidly. John Arnone's first-rate set is beautifully lit by Kurt Landisman. There are lots of really funny lines, and director May keeps things moving at an agreeable pace.

It's just never clear where she's taking us.

The play is the problem. The story is so loose and disjointed that nothing makes real sense. Playwright May swats at all sorts of issues but doesn't hang on to any of them. It feels like she keeps promising a real story with a real payoff—but it doesn't happen.

The first scene introduces us to George (Don Murray), a nice-enough but filthy-rich Upper Eastsider. George is ready to fly off to Aspen for some skiing. His wife, Doreen (Thomas), is still in bed and rebuffs his efforts to rouse her so they can share a proper goodbye. He charms, chides, cajoles and even serenades her, but she burrows deeper into her mountains of down and thousand-thread-count sheets.

All we see is her extended arm, which directs him to pet her, cuddle with her, come closer, go away. It is the best arm-acting you're likely to see, and it gives us our first clue that Doreen is a bit of a spoiled brat.

Meanwhile, in a modest flat across town, Carla (Julia Brothers) is on the phone attempting to explain to her 90-year-old mother how to use the DVR Carla has programmed for her. She's also trying to get ready for her afternoon physical-therapy clients and is worrying about the disruption in subway service caused by a bomb threat.

Her husband, Michael (Reese Madigan), a left-leaning history teacher at a public high school, arrives to ready himself for that evening's Amnesty International meeting. He really wants Carla to join him, and she promises she will as soon as she finishes everything else crowding her crunched schedule.

We then rejoin George, who is being driven to the airport by a young man from the Dominican Republic who insists that he is "legal." The scene actually involves a nifty bit of stagecraft: The car rises, with gleaming grill, from under the stage through a trapdoor. Despite this bit of technical trickery, the interminable scene is much like the car: It goes nowhere.

The next scene is Thomas' moment to shine. Doreen appears, improbably, at Carla's front door and announces dispassionately that George has died in Aspen. She insists on staying with Carla, the daughter of Doreen's childhood nanny, although they have not seen each other in years.

Carla is appalled—she already has more than enough to deal with—but she's unable to refuse Doreen. Their scene is well-written and nicely executed, with Thomas embodying the clueless, demanding rich bitch, and Brothers acting as her ever-yielding straight man, or straight woman. Their duet is hilarious.

Thomas' Doreen is odd, engaging, maddening, lost, annoying, outrageous—and very, very funny. She has no clue how to do anything, particularly the complicated and unpleasant tasks of arranging to have the body transported and planning a funeral. So she doesn't, confident that someone will do it for her.

The story feels like a wobbly vehicle designed to give an eccentric and funny character room to roam. It's held together with the literary equivalent of duct tape, and by the end of our bumpy ride, the wheels have fallen off. Sure, there are plenty of honestly earned laughs. But they dissolve immediately, like cotton candy.

Still, we remain eager to join in the fun, trying diligently to connect the dots that May teasingly scatters around, trusting that they will create some sort of discernible design.

In the end, there are just too many utterly implausible plot twists for us to do anything but scratch our heads. Things get so convoluted and contrived that we're not even sure that the play is over when the lights go to black. Ouch.

With some serious surgery, George Is Dead might be worthy of resuscitation. Otherwise, this patient might be better off in a happier place.

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