nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 29, 2009
There are two characters in Vigil. One is Grace, an elderly lady who, when we first encounter her, seems to be near death's door—bedridden, haggard, and silent. The other is Kemp, a middle-aged bank "drudge" (as the press release dubs him): sour and depressed and madly egoist. He has left his job to come to care for Grace after receiving a letter from his aunt saying that she is dying. Though he hasn't seen her in decades (and though, as we will soon find out, he harbors deep resentment for her and for the rest of his dysfunctional family), Kemp is prepared to see her through her final days...so long as they don't last too long, and he can collect what's left over after she's gone.
The trouble is, Grace isn't going anywhere.
Vigil starts off as a series of canny blackouts, introducing us to these two singular characters and setting up the situation that has brought them together. It flashes before us in fits and starts that are weirdly off-kilter, darkly hilarious, and increasingly broad. Kemp punctuates each little scene with a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane jolt: sign your will, auntie, he says; or later, eat some more of the [possibly poisoned] butterscotch pudding. The exaggeratedness of the thing made me think of a cartoon: Kemp is Wile E. Coyote—with all the dashed hopes and flaring neuroses of that iconic failed predator—to Grace's centered (if generally immobile) Road Runner.
They pass a year together in this fashion, the seasons charted by Kemp's monologues and shifting weather glimpsed through the dingy bedroom windows (the excellent detailed set is by Andromache Chalfant). The relationship matures, kind of; power, such as it is among these two hopeless cases, shifts. Christmas comes. And playwright Morris Panych maneuvers a couple of surprising transformations in his play, as what seemed simply mordantly funny suddenly turns serious and then unexpectedly profound. Kemp and Grace discover that what they share is aloneness. My companion called Vigil an allegory, and indeed the play offers some worthwhile lessons in life among its musings.
Director Stephen DiMenna establishes a pace and tone for Vigil from the outset that keeps us slightly on edge and untethered. Two expert actors work the rest of the magic to make the play comic and buoyant and smart (though never sentimental). Malcolm Gets is Kemp, terminally unhappy without ever getting on our nerves as he rattles on and on about past injustices and present pet peeves. Helen Stenborg, in the much quieter role of Grace, threatens to steal the show from Gets periodically, reacting eloquently from her bed to his tirades and then surprising us with a stealthy, spry move that we don't see coming.
There's a sight gag near the beginning of Act Two that's priceless.
Ilona Somogyi's costumes, Ed McCarthy's lighting, and especially Greg Pliska's almost-creepy music provide just the right ambience for the play.
Vigil is both smart and clever; it keeps the audience on its toes because it keeps turning out to be something other than what you think it is. It's a grand vehicle for Gets and Stenborg, with enough substance to chew on to keep it from feeling the mere trifle that it makes itself out to be. It is, so far, one of the more delightful treats of the new theatre season.