This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
This month, Westwood's Geffen Playhouse is home to two works by women playwrights about the harsh reality of death. The first, a World Premiere by Jane Anderson, is titled The Quality of Life. It's a short, relatively cogent drama about two couples: one dealing with the death of a loved one that recently happened, the other dealing with the death of a loved one that's about to happen.
Early on, the play risks becoming a college ethics debate, but as the first act progresses, Anderson finds her footing, establishing the right balance of humor and pathos. She sets up the two couples' situation and lets us get to know them. The repressed feelings of Scott Bakula and JoBeth Williams' as Ohio born-agains slowly percolate and the cracks in Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf's extroverted, New Age façade become visible. All four actors elevate the proceedings with an easy, lived-in naturalism.
The second act doesn't quite know where to go with the scenario. The playwright offers notions instead of narrative. Luckily, Anderson's notions are tasteful, diverting and brief. The Quality of Life resembles this year's Pulitzer Prize winning play Rabbit Hole, seen last fall at the Geffen. Both dramas investigate the ways human beings—and more particularly, Americans—handle grief. As one of Anderson's characters says at one point: "people turn stupid around tragedy."
It's a good line made even better by the fact that neither couple ever comes off as too stupid or too wise about the complexities of life and death. Like Rabbit Hole, the characters feel real, and provide good roles for the actors to inhabit; but unlike that more polished work, Anderson's play feels like it's still searching for the right scenes to make its point.
Anderson may well revise the play for future productions; sadly the other new play showing at the Geffen, doesn't share this possibility. Third is the last work by Wendy Wasserstein, who passed away shortly after the play received its world premiere in New York two years ago. Third is also a play that takes a hard look at life and death; but, because it is more ambitious, its rough, unfinished edges are that much more apparent and cause for sadness.
"I wanted to change the world," says the main character, Laurie (played by Christine Lahti), "but all I did was change the English department." This is vintage Wasserstein, reducing a major life crisis to a single pithy one-liner. Third is about how Laurie must face the fact that the battles she once fought and defined herself by are ancient history—now she is the establishment.
Laurie's self-questioning is also the playwright's self-questioning and what makes Third interesting is the chance to see an writer genuinely re-evaluating her own artistic past—as well as the ideologies that helped shaped her voice.
Sadly, this investigation feels rushed. A clumsy subplot with Laurie's father strains to evoke King Lear and the final scene that wraps everything up in a nicely tied bow feels maddeningly false. The unintended message of Third, like the main theme of The Quality of Life, turns out to be that death has a way of disrupting even the most well scripted plans.
Third runs at the Geffen Playhouse through October 28; The Quality of Life continues through November 18.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: Michael Lamont