nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
April 15, 2005
According to program notes, Death Party is the first play by author John Pastore and based on some of his own experiences growing up in a violent household. It's an impressive debut. There are truly funny moments, truly harrowing moments, some fine acting, and—very importantly—it’s unlikely that you and the friend(s) you came with will leave the theatre without something to argue over later. It will, in any event, live with you.
25-year-old Joe is a self-consumed, aggressively blunt, obnoxious “asshole.” (He is, in fact, called that several times by various characters during the course of the play and, for most of the play, he more than lives up to the description.) When we first meet him, knocking back beers on a Brooklyn stoop with his long-suffering best friend Will, Joe is in rare form. His outwardly decent cop father has suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. We see through flashbacks that behind closed doors, the man was boorish, violent and abusive to his wife and two sons. Joe rages on ad nauseum that he is expected to put on a show at the wake and act respectful when, frankly, he mourns only to have not been the one to send the old S.O.B. to his grave. And what is this wake really but a party of pretense? Sorry for your loss, ma’am, but how’s the DJ and where’s the bar and the conga line?
And then we meet Alex, Joe’s quiet, gentle-natured younger brother who, for their mother’s sake, has come to commandeer Joe back to the wake. Alex is no happier about this than Joe but stands firm to his charge. When drunk-as-a-skunk Joe promises to go only if Alex can beat him in a boxing spar, anguished Alex takes him out in a punch. Act Two begins with Joe honoring his promise in the most blasphemous way. He shows up at his mother’s house toting balloons and party music cds and wearing a clown costume. In his goody bag are a dildo—a “present” for his mother—and his father’s loaded gun. His diatribes against his parents reach fevered, nearly orgasmic pitch when Alex finally steps forward to divulge his own secrets that quite take away Joe’s spotlight. What those secrets are—well, let’s just say there are no warm fuzzies or Kodak moments in this play, but at least Joe is finally left speechless.
Max Rishoj has a grand time playing Joe, a decidedly unsympathetic character who never apologizes (until the end, anyway, when it’s far too late) and believes 100% that the victimization by his father and the silent, clueless culpability of his mother entitle him to behave the way he does. Joe believes that all he’s doing, in his show-no-mercy/take-no-prisoners way, is telling it like it is. And very often in the course of the play that is exactly what he does, as much as we might hate to admit it. It’s the part where psychologically he’s more his loathsome father’s son than he realizes—if not potentially worse—that kills his credibility.
Zac Springer gives an inspired, shattering performance as Alex, Joe’s strait-laced but desperately vulnerable younger brother who, like Joe, proves through his own demons that the apple never falls too far from the family tree. And Taylor Girard is terrific—albeit sorely underused—as Will, the brothers’ infinitely patient, supportive, low-fat/low-carb eating friend who tries too late to extricate himself from the escalation of nastiness at the death party.
There are nice performances as well in small peripheral comic roles from Nick Amick as another of Joe’s neighborhood friends, Ricky, and Hilary Thompson as Ricky’s brainy fiancee Vanessa. Alas, I found these characters unnecessary, even distracting to the action. They seem to serve only to show what a jerk Joe is, but, trust me, we DON’T need any more reminders. The same applies to the character of Ano, played by Albert Sanchez, Jr., a friend of Joe’s father who also shows up very briefly to entreat Joe to go home to the wake.
Less effective are the portrayals of Joe’s parents, but this is not necessarily criticism of the actors. Lucianna Magnoli, as Joe’s mother Sally, has very little to do on stage but look downtrodden, shell-shocked, and washed-out. As father John, shown in the short flashbacks, Steven Devito only shouts, threatens, and throws things. Especially given their dialogue, these two characters come off as cookie cutter cliches, not people. I think the playwright will have more of a play if we are given a few more clues about why Sally stayed with this brute and is so paralyzed by his loss. And I think Pastore will have an even better play if we don’t see the dead father at all, even in memories or flashbacks. Giving the audience different glimpses of John through the characters—especially Sally—will make us wonder if Joe really is only being a whiny martyr and will give Alex’s final revelations greater impact.
On the technical side, there’s some nice staging by director Marc Eardley, especially Joe and Alex’s boxing scene. Casey Smith’s set is instantly recognizable as blue collar Brooklyn.
Death Party needs a bit more work before it’s really a finished piece and reaches its full potential. But even as it exists now, it’s still quite a remarkable achievement, especially for a first-time playwright. And I applaud the courage it must have taken to write such a play to begin with.