Amy (Jessica Durdock) and Sean (Nicholas J. Coleman) wage another battle of the sexes in Matt Morillo’s surprisingly sharp comedy All Aboard the Marriage Hearse, now playing the Theater for the New City. Hearse, also directed by Morillo, is a small, intimate play that remains full of substance without any over-arching socio-political agendas. All the action and intensity one could want in a show takes place within the confines of an East Village living room, and this a case where less is certainly more. Amy and Sean arrive home at their apartment after an evening of revelry at a friend’s wedding. Inebriated flirtation leads to a misunderstanding that snowballs into an all-out fight over the merits and faults of marriage. Though the couple have been – and lived – together for several years, marriage does not seem to be an option. Sean, currently a columnist for The New Yorker, is publicly averse to the institution of marriage, although he is not a commitment-phobe. Sean feels that it is a political and social union that forces lovers to stay together rather than choosing to do so for more personal, organic reasons, and that it ultimately destroys love. Amy recognizes that argument but still wants to walk down the aisle.
The conversation starts out innocent and at times, even, puerile, but it becomes a war that escalates at a carefully measured pace. Can two people that love each other and have almost everything in common stay together if they disagree about one fairly major topic? And should they? Morillo blends the highly comic with the more dramatic elements of Amy and Sean’s fighting with aplomb, careful not to strip them of their humanity. One element that could use a little finessing is his staging – there are only so many times both characters can walk back and forth across a stage before the blocking feels redundant.
Morillo upends what could have been a merely conventional play in several respects. First of all, he supplies an inordinate amount of exposition that suggests these characters actually have a rich history before the audience ever meets them, but never simply spoon feeds information when necessary. Secondly, he cares for both Amy’s and Sean’s perspectives equally. One gets the impression that the play’s debate is one he has had in his own life, since he justifies every notion both characters use in stating their seemingly mutually exclusive cases. (The show’s title derives from a William Blake quote cited by Sean in one of his columns.)
Most importantly, Morillo creates an important reversal early in the second act of Hearse that allows Coleman and Durdock to flex different muscles than in the first act and validates just how complex the politics of relationships can be. Both actors are up to the challenge (and the play is more challenging, forcing its stars to display a wide array of emotions in a short period of time). Though her delivery was at times nasal, Durdock makes it clear just how important marriage is and why it has become a deal-breaker for her. Her line readings, particularly as the play progresses, are quite impassioned. Coleman is blessed with a showier role that wears less on the audience, alternately invoking either reason or sympathy at the appropriate times, and nails it. Both actors are forced to exhibit various edges of toughness, stoicism and vulnerability. I do wish, though, that Morillo had cut the line that ends the first act; it is too clunky for a scene that should end with an exclamation point.
Nonetheless, Hearse makes its case not only for the costs and benefits of marriage, but also for an overlooked theatrical subgenre. Title aside, Morillo proves that smart comedy is alive and well.