nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 29, 2008
Mark Schultz's new play, Deathbed, is frustrating and confounding, despite a fine mounting by Apparition Productions: the acting, direction, and design are all top-notch. And the playwright, it seems, accomplishes what he sets out to do, regardless of how off-putting his theme may be to the audience.
Two women sit in a hospital waiting room. One of them, Betty, reads a hardcover bestseller titled, curiously enough, "Deathbed" by Mark Schultz. The other woman, Jane, has already read it, and it's a real tearjerker. "You'll see," she tells Betty through watery eyes, visibly affected by the book. Betty, politely annoyed by the intrusion, nods her head and goes back to reading.
Cue the light change and scene transition music as the two women remain on stage, seated off to the side. What follows is, I'm guessing, a full dramatization of the book Betty's reading. And what a potboiler it is.
First there's Susan, who thinks her boyfriend, Martin, is attracted to a man, a claim Martin vehemently denies (his relationship with the man in question, Steven—whom he drunkenly kissed at a party—is strictly platonic). Steven, on the other hand, is in love with Martin and lets his feelings be known.
Then there's Martha, who has just been diagnosed with cancer. As scared as she is, her boyfriend, Danny, is even more wigged out. He can't stomach sickness or death and rapidly begins to withdraw from her, using her illness as an excuse to fall off the wagon of his long held sobriety.
Finally, there's Thomas, a war veteran so traumatized by his past as a soldier that he has decided to kill himself, complete with the local paper boy filming the whole thing.
On the whole, these characters are a hard group to spend time with, mostly because we only get to see one side of them: the bad side. Whatever good qualities they possess remain unseen. Once the characters establish themselves, there's nowhere else for them to go: they don't change or learn. (Not to mention there is no love or hope in Deathbed, only despair, which makes for a one-sided evening.)
To top things off, Schultz ends Deathbed on such a flippant and blasé note it negates the rest of the play. As much as I would like to spoil the ending, it would be bad form to do so. I'll just say that the author's point seems to be that we, as a culture, should not take such heaving potboilers as seriously as we do. But, for Schultz to write one and then symbolically slap the audience in the face for investing in it (which is essentially what he does) is bad form also.
The cast is very good and Wendy C. Goldberg's direction is spot-on, but it would be preferable to see all these talents working on a play with more well-rounded characters, where they don't have to work so hard. Ultimately, Deathbed is the kind of play that makes everyone, from the audience to the creative team, work unnecessarily hard for little gain.