George is dead, the victim of an exceptionally bad day on the intermediate slope at Vail, so his widow Doreen (Kerri Rambow), a wonderfully self-absorbed rich person, needs to make this somebody else’s problem. But who?
George’s children (Doreen is his second wife) are in Switzerland, or somewhere else, following their muses. Doreen knows! How abut Carla (Fiona Blackshaw), the daughter of Doreen’s beloved nanny (Jean H. Miller)? Surely she can drop all of her problems and minister to Doreen’s emotional needs, and also fix her a cup of tea, spiked with bourbon. And some cheese. Brie, preferably, or stilton. And maybe let her stay overnight.
Carla has problems of her own: because she has spent the evening fixing her mother’s television set, she has missed the speech her husband Michael (John Twill) delivered at Amnesty International, and Michael is not happy. But what are Carla’s problems to Doreen? After all, George is dead! Doreen sits on Carla’s couch, pounds down her drink, and waits for her cheese and crackers. (When she discovers that the only crackers Carla has are Saltines, she asks Carla to scrape the salt off for her.)
Really, can anybody write such fabulously morbid stuff better than Elaine May? (I admit to being one of the eight people who actually enjoyed Ishtar.) The great comedian (and physicist) Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) argues that all comedy comes from selfishness. If so, May is the greatest comic of all time, because Doreen — well, next to Doreen, Bernie Madoff would seem like a philanthropist.
“I loved your mother,” Doreen says shortly after she bursts in. “Is she still alive?” When Carla assures her that she is, Doreen says “she must really be old.” She’s ninety, Carla says. Doreen’s face falls. “She was much younger the last time I saw her,” forty years ago, she says in dismay.
Later she asks Carla the same question. “Do you listen?” Carla asks.
“No!” Doreen replies cheerfully. “I don’t know why anybody listens to anybody else. It’s like you giving me your underwear.” She explains that she can’t wear it, because it’s not the right size, and she can’t give it away, because it’s in a drawer.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Carla says.
“It started out as a metaphor, but I got bored in the middle of it, and so I just said whatever I wanted.” And as she says this, you can tell that she is boring herself again, and we are likely to hear more random words any minute.
A good three quarters of George is Dead is Doreen reaching successively higher levels of selfishness, self-importance, and self-absorption. In order to prevent this play from becoming a one-trick pony, you need to have an actor of extraordinary skill in the role of Doreen. Fortunately, this production has one. Kerri Rambow, brilliant in a dramatic role in Night Falls on the Blue Planet, is exquisite in a comic role here. Like Atkinson and other great comic actors, Rambow seems oblivious throughout to the absurdity of her pronouncements and actions, and her character’s inability to realize how offensive she is dovetails with the sense of entitlement she radiates throughout.
Blackshaw plays straight against Rambow’s comic persona, but she gets that Carla is a complicated person, and she establishes a character sturdy enough to embody all of Carla’s quirks. Carla is, at bottom, someone who cannot distinguish generosity of spirit from being a patsy, and as a result is always at the service of the needy and the greedy. In a brief but furiously effective scene with Michael (Twill is outstanding here) she proclaims her gospel of hope — a principal which Michael has already abandoned.
GEORGE IS DEAD
December 3 – December 19, 2015
at DC Arts Center
2438 18th Street NW
50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $25 -$35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The play’s central dilemma is how to get Doreen to take responsibility for her dead husband’s funeral, and the disposal of his body. For this Carla must enlist her ancient mother, and as Miller plays her she is a fierce old battleax, stooped and slow but snarling and ready to fight. Oddly enough, we understand almost as much about Carla from Miller’s portrayal of her mother as we do from Carla herself.
Tom Neubaurer, Alex Diaz-Ferguson, and Mark Osele are flawless in brief supporting roles — which is to say, the deliver what they need to without calling attention to themselves. Indeed, the production itself is well-nigh flawless, which is a tribute to the work of director Ian Allen. My only complaint is that I thought David C. Ghatan’s lighting plot was too dim; Blackshaw and particularly Rambow do a great deal of acting with their faces, and I sometimes had difficulty seeing them, notwithstanding my swell seat.
Fabulously morbid, wonderfully self-absorbed, brilliant acting…it’s almost as if Cherry Red Productions had risen from the dead. And perhaps it did, as the new producing company, The Klunch, has resurrected much of the talent of that great old company.
Oh — I told you that three-quarters of the play is about Doreen’s selfishness. What’s the other one-quarter? Well, I won’t go into details, other than to say that the death of a spouse, though it may sometimes be funny, is never cool. George is Dead ends a little abruptly, but then again, so did George.
George is Dead by Elaine May Directed by Ian Allen. Featuring Fiona Blackshaw, Kerri Rambow, John Tweel, Jean H. Miller, Tom Neubauer, Alex Diaz-Ferguson and Mark Osele. Set and lighting design: David C. Ghatan, Costume design: Rhonda Key and Jennifer Tardiff Beal . Sound design: Lucas Zarwell . Stage Manager: Amanda Williams . Produced by The Klunch . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.