Deadly Serious?

At a funeral for actress Stacy Mayer, her eulogizer might say she was a charismatic comedian with great confidence and energy—almost enough to carry a clichéd show about funeral traditions. Though her performance in The Funeralogues is, at times, an admirable struggle, she perishes in the effort. I hope, for her sake, this is not what she will be remembered for. In the giddily irreverent hour-long Funeralogues, Mayer, as performer, and Robert Charles Gompers, as writer, cover the familiar, yet bizarre territory of public mourning, charting the progression of Mayer’s morbid obsession throughout her life. As in the brief eulogy above, Mayer dwells on the way she will be remembered. She also spends some time commenting upon the grief of strangers, but these parts lack the breezy, self-deprecating humor that Mayer excels at.

Adding to the irreverence, The Funeralogues is staged in the All Souls Unitarian Church. The church is outfitted with a “Quiet: service in session” sign, a guest book, hymnals, and its own piano player (Manny Simone, filling in for Jim Lahti) who provides plaintive renditions of songs like "Forever Young" and "Runaway Train."

The show gets off to a somewhat rocky start. Mayer takes some time to get comfortable, as does the audience, which tries to grapple with the awkward comedy of a highly polished monologue. By nature the monologue is self-obsessed, but in this show it can come across as woefully indulgent. Some of Mayer’s preoccupations are dull; in particular, her flashback to a Barbie funeral over which she presided as a girl is uninteresting and cloying. However, when Mayer’s humor takes a turn for the catty or self-effacing, she garners more laughs from the audience. For instance, when she considers the reckless possibility of saying what we really feel at funerals: “Let’s face it; you don’t get struck by lightning because God loves you.”

The show isn’t without charm, but Mayer and Gompers try to take on more than they can collectively chew. When the show tries to tackle the complex emotion of grief, it falls back on clichéd characters and perspectives. Mayer is capable of providing convincing turns of character—an elderly woman, the lone survivor in a large family; a crankily sad old man; a military officer and “death specialist” are given vivid life by Mayer, but they don’t really have a place in this show.

In the program, The Funeralogues is described as “a drop dead comedy,” and, at its best, it can be funny. The overall tone of the show is in keeping with this description, which makes the notes of melodrama ring all the more false. It is especially strange when Mayer recites an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eulogy for two girls who died in an Alabama church bombing. Mayer frequently refers to funerals as “downers,” with the apparent intention of mocking the sometimes silly gravity we attach to our traditions. The MLK speech, as well as another one dealing with the death of two soldiers in Iraq, asks the audience to care in a way that the rest of the show does not.

It’s too bad The Funeralogues lacks focus and consistency; Mayer is likable as an actress and comedian, however, when she introduces serious outsiders into her warped world, it’s hard not to wish it would come to a quick end. Of course there is comedy in tragedy and tragedy in comedy, but here they make terribly strange bedfellows. Mayer, a leader of MC², or Manhattan Comedy Collective, has the enviable skill of making people laugh, but she squanders that all too readily here. Perhaps, for everyone’s sake, it would be best if this show went gently into the good night, while Mayer continues to rage.

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