Ashes to Ashes
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through January 14
Playwright Debbie Bolsky set out to write a classic old-style madcap comedy, but what she produced is a singularly improbable farce.
Sara (Lena Bouton) and Jefferson (Kevin Young) were once a couple, but they split up because of irreconcilable differences: She is a rabid liberal who carries her convictions to the edge of lunacy, while he is an equally committed conservative, who pursues his beliefs to the point of idiocy. But now their very wealthy married friends, Kate and Wilson, have simultaneously died, leaving a complicated and extremely unlikely will: their vast fortune is left to Sara and Jeff, but only if they carry out the will’s curious stipulations to the letter.
Sara and Jeff are required to go all over Europe in order to scatter their friends’ ashes in places which marked highlights in their marriage. And they must constantly stay together for the 16 days, 21 hours and 32 minutes their mission will require (curiously, the time is specified in the will). In order to complete their mission, the mismatched pair must kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland, run with — and from — the bulls in Pamplona, bungee jump from the highest bridge in France, go salmon fishing in Scotland, play a confusing game of chess in Wales, and ride a gondola in Venice. And all these activities are cleverly and amusingly simulated onstage.
As any seasoned theatregoer knows, if a writer of comedy creates a prickly battling couple, it follows as the night the day that they will get together in time for the final curtain. The only question is how persuasively and expeditiously this is managed. With this couple it’s not easy. Kate is a shrill, combative and unreasonable woman, and an obsessive paper-shredder who leaves a trail of scraps wherever she goes. And Wilson is smug, timorous, self-satisfied, and mortally afraid of heights.
The play’s saving grace is its third character, the Guide, deftly played by Michael Uribes. He turns up, in various guises, at every stop along the way. We first see him as an airline hostess, then subsequently as a leprechaunish Irish tour guide, a crusty old Scotsman in a kilt, a Belgian peasant girl, a white chess queen, a rebel warrior of unspecified nationality, a drunken Frenchman and a gondolier. His appearances are the highlights of the show.
Bolsky’s play makes unreasonable demands on our ability to suspend disbelief. Director Katherine James is inventive in staging the stunts, but her handling of the comedy is often labored and heavy-handed. Bouton and Young do what is required of them with considerable skill, but they are not always fortunate in their material.
Pete Hickok designed the stunningly handsome set, which consists of black and white marbleized cubes backed by artfully draped parachute silk, which also serves as a screen for Nick Santiago’s helpful projections. Kate Bergh supplied the many and varied costumes, and prop designer Michael Allen Angel provided the hilarious corrugated cardboard bull for the Pamplona sequence.
The Athena Cats at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard, West Los Angeles. Thurs., Dec. 21 & 28, 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; no performances on Dec. 24 & 31. (310) 564-9401 or www.AshesToAshestheplay.com. Running time: approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.