Final verdict

Scenes from a Wake

By Chuck McMahon
Directed by Stacee Mandeville
Prester John Productions
Theater on 2
432 West 42nd St., 2nd fl.
Equity showcase (closes May 17)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Eternity with a Hank Williams impersonator. Hell? Or merely Purgatory?

Such are the intellectual conundrums posed by Scenes from a Wake, a new play by Chuck McMahon that examines the effect of death upon the relationships of the living. Roger is a two-timing husband who parties his life away, literally. When he dies from a coke overdose, he is sent to a strange limbo inhabited only by two women, akin to harpies, and a Hank Williams impersonator. The harpies from hell attend Roger's body and spirit, unseen by anyone except Roger. Meanwhile, a frenetic, coked-up, necrophiliac mortician's wife is attending to his body, laid out at the morgue. The play alternates between scenes of Roger in his weird afterlife and his even weirder wake, with his bitchy wife, straight-laced mother, drinking buddies, and a pair of street hustlers intent on finding the mortician's wife's coke stash -- and, in one unforgettable scene, a truly schizo priest who loses it during the eulogy. Eventually, Roger's death helps the living to reconcile their relationships with one another.

It could be a touching story, and it could also be extremely funny. As it stands, however, the story is pretty weak, and partially obscured by the many (often extraneous) subplots. There are too many characters, with not enough character development, and much of the humor is of the one-liner variety. However, there's definite potential. While the gags are sophomoric at times, McMahon has a good grasp of situational comedy and a flair for dialog. Quickening the pace substantially would help; it went slowly, and physical comedy is best performed at a swift clip.

Fortunately, the acting was able to transcend most of the textual deficiencies. The cast, though large, had an energetic dynamic that was a joy to watch. Brandon Cusma stole the show as Pastor Green, and Brad Thomason made an excellent Hank Williams impersonator. Rachel Lu and Adrienne Wheeler were sexy and captivating as the harpies -- they had the best costumes, too, thanks to costume designer Megan Friddle -- and Heather Lasnier made a truly uptight wife. Director Stacee Mandeville showed an obvious talent for working with large casts.

The set (designed by Eva Moll and Donna Bostany) made excellent use of the small stage, and was appropriately garish funeral-home cheesy, with an ugly silk-lined casket, cheap folding chairs, hideous flowers, and strange, psychedelic stained-glass windows.

While the text is cluttered, the acting was not, and in the end was the saving grace of the show. It was definitely worth seeing; the cast, playwright and director were young and talented, and Scenes from a Wake is funny, even if it is a bit uneven.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman