Last Writes

The Funeralogues, Stacy Mayer’s tragicomic solo show, is less about death than it is about how different people lament the dead differently. The show, which Mayer conceived with writer Robert Charles Gompers, lifts quotes from various peoples' eulogies, famous and little-known, real and fictional. And by virtue of being performed in a real place of worship (the Upper East Side’s All Souls Chapel), Funeralogues feels like an actual service. I know I left feeling lifted. Early on in the show and periodically throughout, Mayer acts out a fictionalized version of herself in order to trace her curiosity with death and the traditions attached to it. She recalls, in the voice and mindset of a five-year-old, a funeral she held for a Barbie doll as a child. She explains that she has crashed many a funeral and adopts the guise of various mourners she has met over the years. Mayer even performs her own hypothetical, idealized eulogy, in which she has lived a perfect, philanthropic existence.

Director Molly Marinik keeps the tone of Funeralogues on an even keel so that as Mayer’s vignettes veer off into more serious territory, the material never feels too manipulative or morose. The material certainly does, though, shift to the more serious side. Mayer portrays an elderly woman who has attended the funeral of thirteen siblings. She recites text from a member of The Casualty Assistance Calling Operations, eulogizing soldiers killed in Afghanistan (it falls on him to console the soldiers’ grieving parents). She quotes from a eulogy written for a deceased fireman by a Midwestern teacher. Mayer even remembers a prayer that her own grandfather distributed in life, later read at his funeral by the actress’s mother.

Perhaps one of the most moving and dramatically impressive moments of the Funeralogues occurs when Mayer takes on the role of an African-American man who read from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the several little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Mayer’s diverse skills are on display throughout her show – she can play young, old, male, female, humor, grief, all with equal conviction.

The Funeralogues is structurally sound. Marinik has Mayer’s character speak with the other characters before inhabiting them. And it is to her and Marinik’s credit that every shift of character and scenario is done gracefully; the audience never suffers from whiplash on this clever ride. A show that could have easily felt bipolar instead feels amazingly coherent.

Marinik’s physical staging is also to be commended. The All Souls Chapel is a small performance space not ideally suited to theatrics. However, the director’s blocking kept Mayer moving around enough so that she never seems glued to the lectern in the center. As a result, the audience never gets a chance to feel restless and Marinik solves the problem of tricky sight lines. I very rarely had to lean around the woman seated in front of me to catch what Mayer was doing.

Additionally, several of the technical members of the Funeralogues crew are crucial to the experience. Lutin Tanner’s lighting goes a long way to helping Mayer achieve the play’s necessary funereal feel. Jim Lahti, the pianist, also does deft work.

More than anything, though, Funeralogues is Mayer’s show. Though this is a major showcase for the talent, she knows better than to ham it up. The actress has the talent and the timing, but she also has that something extra that separates the good from the extraordinary. There is an extra inimitable spark that makes her unendingly watchable for the duration of the show; she endears herself to the audience from the first moment she walks up to the lectern and has them in her thrall in each scenario until the play’s end.

The play itself is not perfect; I do not think that it would suffer by shaving off several later anecdotes Either way, the conclusion of The Funeralogues, which provides a bit of a twist, is certainly earned. The show is a meditation on life, love and death. And its star, Stacy Mayer, is the sweetest angel one could ever want to lead them to the pearly gates.

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