Permanent Whole Life
nytheatre.com review by Michael Bettencourt
August 11, 2006
The 90-minute intermissionless Permanent Whole Life, written by Zayd Dohrn and directed by Wesley Savick, is, for the most part, a tight little amoral tale about the calculated deceptions of the life insurance business. There are moments when insurancemeister Mort Golman (in a sharp performance by Ken Baltin) becomes positively lyrical in his instructions to protégé Henry Kohl (the wonderfully hapless Gabriel Field) about how to deny claims and cheat customers. (One of the better lines in the play: "Our job is not to pay out claims. Our job is to collect premiums.") Henry, for his part, finds that he has a talent not only for doing a job he despises but also to continue doing it despite the foul taste in his mouth.
The other two members of this ensemble, Stacy Fischer and Lisa Morse, also turn in solid performances. Fischer plays the grieving widow Susan Taylor, whose husband's death by way of an errant cement truck begins the play. Mort ends up seducing her even as he moves to deny her the benefits of her husband's policy, but he realizes too late that she has hoisted him on a pretty neat petard of his own. Morse, as Ava Kohl, Henry's wife, also has a spine to watch out for. Ava is so driven to have a baby (she has had at least two miscarriages) that a plan to murder Mort to get the annuity money he's promised to Henry seems like a pretty practical idea to her.
But as delightfully devious as the action of the play gets, in the end Dohrn chooses to soften his dissection of human greed with cautionary gestures, and that's a shame. He seems to want Mort Golman to be someone like Alec Baldwin's brass-ball-swinging Blake in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross, but what we get is Willy Loman with diabetes and cancer, a pitiful man getting what he deserves, and such moralizing, intentional or not, takes a lot of the fun out of the proceedings.
Still, Permanent Whole Life is worth a visit. Production values are clean, and Richard Wadsworth Chambers's set and Steven McIntosh's lighting offer just enough to establish place and time without getting in the action's way.