Where is thy sting?

Death in England

By Sam Bobrick
Directed by Scott C. Embler
Vital Theatre Company
432 West 42 St. (592-0129)
Equity showcase (closes July 30)
Review by David Mackler

The title of Sam Bobrick's comic play Death in England may bring to mind Thomas Mann, but it is Death Takes a Holiday that really gets the shaft. In this depiction, Death (Todd Wilson), while not as good-looking as Brad Pitt nor as solemn as Fredric March, is quite a decent chap actually, someone who would be very welcome at a dinner party. Not like his counterpart who goes by the name Jonathon Pike (Robert Meksin), who is rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.

There's even a bit of a mystery, complete with a Scotland Yard Inspector (Todd Butera), and an assortment of characters including an upper-middle-class couple (Kenny Morris and Karin Wolfe), a prostitute (Marianna Kulukundis), a member of the working class (Joe McClean), and of course a maid (Polly Humphreys). Have any stereotypes been overlooked?

The mystery, such as it is, has something to do with someone (or something) causing deaths that poor Death knows nothing about. The resolution, though, gets lost in some not terribly interesting pseudo- metaphysical ruminations, which dissipate whatever comic good will the play had generated. It is left to the cast then to create interest from a not-very-secure foundation, which thankfully most were able to do.

Morris was as suitably stolid and dull (prostitute notwithstanding) as his character would be; Butera latched on to each new speculation with the eagerness of a slightly demented puppy; Kulukundis reveled in her sluttishness; Meksin created some interest until plot confusions intervene; and Wilson had an amusing befuddlement as Death.

McClean had little to do other than a charming (if inexplicable) music-hall rendition of Monty Python's "Always look on the Bright Side of Life," and Polly Humphreys combined the fussiness of Eric Blore and the sauciness of Hattie McDaniel into comic delight. But in the middle of the play's intermittently amusing muddle, Karin Wolfe stood out with a beautifully understated performance, hitting just the right notes of daffiness and solidity. She was also an excellent listener, eminently watchable even when what was being said was less than fascinating. (How about Coward or Wilde next time?)

Director Scott C. Embler handled the comings and goings with minimal fuss, though on occasion there seemed to be an awful lot of just standing around. But the play itself doesn't do much more than sit there - when an interesting plot point comes up (should Death kill an innocent person just to see if he can?) it isn't handled with much vigor. This was a sumptuous production though, with costumes (by Nestelynn Gay and Stefanie Sowa) perfectly suiting each character's personality, and a set (by Katie Levey) that more than amply conveyed the couple's living style. Lighting and sound (both by Martin Miller) were solid, with some comic thunderclaps quite appreciated.

Bobrick is best known for his play Norman, Is That You?, but aside from some of the actors' antics, the audience was most taken with the fact that one actor, left for dead and covered with a sheet, was lying on stage throughout the intermission.

Box Score:

Writing: 1

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Set: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting 1/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 David Mackler