nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 28, 2006
Late in A.R. Gurney's delightful new comedy, Post Mortem, Alice, a college professor, is informed that she's been spitting while she talks. Her response? "That's because I'm taking up acting again." Insert rimshot here. That is one of the many screwball potshots Gurney takes at everyone and everything here. No one escapes his playful ire: the Christian Right, public television fundraisers, aspiring screenwriters, not even himself. When called upon to look up Gurney in one of her drama reference books, Alice can't find him. He is only listed in an arcane volume which describes him as a decidedly minor playwright.
Yes, Gurney is a character in Post Mortem, albeit in absentia. After more than three decades of either being critically dismissed or just plain taken for granted, Gurney jumps on the meta-theatre gravy train and has a blast positing that a play of his could be significant enough to bring about world peace. It's a conceit he never takes seriously, but skillfully uses to make larger points about modern disposable culture, common sense, theatre as an effective social force, and natural law. That such headiness goes down so smoothly stands as proof positive that this playwright is anything but minor.
Set in a near future controlled by the now Big Brother-esque conservative Christian Right, Post Mortem tells the story of Alice and Dexter. Alice teaches drama at a faith-based Midwestern college; Dexter is one of her students. He wants to do Gurney for his senior thesis, and has unearthed a never-produced, lost masterpiece by the playwright—appropriately titled "Post Mortem," also—that he thinks will be perfect. The play, it seems, was suppressed by the government because of its hot-button political content, and Gurney died under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter.
Such a controversial subject is difficult to talk about in Alice's office, which is bugged. Then, there's the issue of how Dexter got this seemingly banned manuscript past the front door checkpoint and into the building. "I told them it was a screenplay I'm writing," he says. "Everybody's got one of those." Gurney skillfully blends satire and politics throughout Post Mortem, including an amusing conspiracy theory concerning his own possible assassination at the figurative hands of Dick Cheney.
He also wisely never shares any of his play-within-the-play. We can only guess at the content of the forbidden manuscript that eventually brings "about peace among nations." Several years later, after Alice and Dexter have brought "Post Mortem" to light, changed the world, and become international superstars, the pair return to their old alma mater for a public appearance, during which Alice's true feelings for Gurney's play are revealed. For all the great things it has done for the world, there is still one quality (which I'm not going to spoil here) she fears the play lacks.
Gurney's concern for our country's well-being, on all levels, is endearingly apparent. And, the proposed future he envisions—one where Tennessee Williams is mostly-banned just because he's homosexual—doesn't look too far-fetched. But, Gurney keeps the tone light all the way, whether he's railing against the current presidential administration or cell phone etiquette in the theatre.
Director Jim Simpson has as much fun as the playwright, focusing strictly on the comedy, and trusting that it will carry the message. He sprinkles telling little bits of business—like Alice gleefully spinning around in her desk chair, at one point, after admitting "I feel slightly rebellious"—throughout the production. Shannon Burkett makes the most of her role as Betsy, a naively idealistic student council member, getting maximum comic mileage out of Gurney's cell phone rant, a speech that goes on for several uninterrupted minutes. As Dexter, Christopher Kromer is sweet in both his devoted puppydog college persona (you see, Dexter's got a big ol' crush on Alice), and his slightly cocky post-college incarnation. And, the alluringly imperious Tina Benko is priceless as Alice, turning in a sublime comic performance that impresses with both its well-honed timing and its weighty force.
"Good drama is expectations fulfilled," Alice says at the play's end. Gurney makes good on that maxim with Post Mortem, surprising theatergoers with both his gravity and his unheralded skill. Head downtown and check these highly fulfilling, tongue-in-cheek shenanigans—and, don't forget to turn your cell phone off.