Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through March 19
The premise of William Donnelly’s No Wake is straightforward enough — the throwing together of a divorced couple after the suicide of their long-estranged daughter. With the addition of a third character, the wife’s new husband who has come along for moral support, the action could proceed in any number of ways, most of them likely to be pretty emotional if not downright fraught.
But Donnelly seems determined to treat the issues this situation raises in the most indirect way possible. It’s as if he were assigned a playwriting exercise in which every disturbing element of a shattering incident was to be tamped down into subtext. If there’s a right tone for this kind of thing, director Kimberly Senior and her actors haven’t found it.
Originally produced by the Chicago-based Route 66 Theatre Company, and remounted by Route 66 Theatre here in LA in association with VS Theatre, No Wake confounds from its opening scene, in which one man (Raymond Fox) treats another (Stef Tovar) to a long, unbroken, daffy monologue about death and parenting and how complicated it all can be, and yet he himself used to play pranks on frogs and he turned out all right. This goes on and on with Tovar silent, and then a woman (Tricia Small) enters and demands, “Are you trying to get my husband drunk?” At which point it becomes clear that Fox’s character isn’t an insensitive stranger assaulting a bereaving dad, as we’ve been thinking, but is actually ex-wife Rebecca’s second husband Roger. Aha!
But what payoff have Donnelly and Senior achieved with this switcheroo? Your guess is as good as mine, especially since Roger (who in Fox’s hands is a dead ringer, visually and aurally, for Tony Hendra of This Is Spinal Tap) is eventually to be understood not as a cloddish boor but as something of a put-upon good guy. Anyway, all I can report is that none of them behaves as if they’ve just returned from a funeral of anyone, let alone a relative, let alone a child.
The action then moves to the ex-husband’s motel room, in which Edward’s hangdog expression, fumbling phone calls to new girlfriend Tina, and a fifth of whiskey in his suitcase all add up to a portrait of a world-class schlemiel, albeit not a man whom grief and guilt are searing with a knife.
When Rebecca arrives (as she must because, in a cast of three, two-hander conversations are the order of the day) they engage in brittle banter about their marriage. “Are you sincere or do you mock me?” “No, I’m very un-mock.” It’s the sort of stuff that could come right out of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Not an undistinguished playwriting forebear, I suppose, but I kept wondering where the dead daughter was in this equation, a question that becomes even more puzzling when Edward and Roger get into a physical altercation that’s supposed to leave them both aching and sore but just looked silly.
It’s only in the last half-hour that the parents’ failures and loss are brought front and center, as they meet in the late Sukie’s apartment to sort out her effects. But even then, the upper lips are kept bafflingly stiff, the emotions held at arm’s length. In the wake of such self-conscious writing, it becomes well-nigh impossible to believe in or care about the wayward dead girl or her trio of broken survivors.
VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; Thu-Fri, 8 p.m.; Sat 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; through Mar. 19. nowake.brownpapertickets.com. (323) 739-4411. Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.