Dead Heads

Several of the characters in Mark Schultz’s Deathbed are truly loathsome. One cowardly man thinks so little of his cancer-stricken wife that he can’t bear to be near her, recoils from her touch, doesn’t appear to know or care what cancer is, and reluctantly allows her one hour to lay her head in his lap before he must flee: “Call me when you’re better.” Another man matter-of-factly expresses his desire to commit suicide “on Wednesday morning” because, he claims without explaining, that worlds of dead people live inside him. His inert and self-pitying granddaughter fails to intervene and his paperboy asks, “Can I watch?” The boy later nonchalantly helps the man commit the act. The play’s press release exaggerates: “Deathbed eloquently paints a landscape of longing and desperation as its characters struggle with loss and suffering.” Deathbed is anything but eloquent. The script brims with stingy language and innumerable clichés. Deathbed consists of a series of interrelated vignettes, each lasting a few minutes. Typically, one person clumsily attempts to describe his or her deep anguish and the other is busy text messaging or otherwise focusing solely on him or herself, rattling off trite responses like, “That’s so sad.”

In response to harrowing details, the transparently amoral characters of Deathbed utter the buzz phrases “that’s sad” or “that’s horrible” or a variation of them no fewer than thirty times. This soon becomes tedious; it’s as if the entire cast has never matured beyond valley speak. I almost expected Paris Hilton to appear, exclaiming, “That’s sad. And hot! And sad!”

Mr. Schultz stretches the callousness and muteness of these characters far past the point of credulity. Perhaps he is satirizing impossibly self-absorbed individuals. Perhaps he has identified an unlikely handful of loosely related (a la Crash) characters existing at the remote end of apathy. Or, maybe he’s simply watched American Beauty too many times. (For good measure, Schultz curiously tosses in a plot thread about a gay man helplessly in love with an ostensibly straight one).

In any event, the conceit runs out of gas quickly. We get it. And we get it early in the play. These selfish and astonishingly inarticulate characters don’t care about each other and most are too socially retarded to express anything resembling empathy. They (and the script) are not “eloquent.” When the paperboy asks the soon-to-be suicide what he thinks death is like, the first thing this man (who has supposedly thought long and hard about it) can come up with is, “Oh, I don’t know.” The cancer stricken woman hopes that people will respond to her disclosure by saying, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

I cannot recall the last time I felt that a 50-minute full-length play was too long, but Deathbed bored me to dea… oh, nevermind. During the matinee performance I attended, someone in the audience was actually snoring. Many of Deathbed’s characters may be struggling with something, but it isn’t loss or suffering. They have light years to go before they reach that level. These atypical people are struggling with their inability to communicate in the most rudimentary ways. Someone call Toastmasters!

If there’s a bright spot in this production, it’s the combination of scenic (Alexander Dodge), lighting (Josh Epstein), and sound design (Ryan Rumery). Hospital waiting room walls lined with antiseptic white plastic seats seamlessly morph, during vignette segues, into pastel blue living rooms with couches. Quick, loud, ominous sound bites portend drama that the characters never quite live up to.

That’s because Mr. Schultz won’t let them. He reins them in with three-word sentences and one-dimensionality, as if he doesn’t trust them. I’m sure there are accomplished actors among the cast but, unfortunately, the miserly script frustrates all of their efforts.

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