Tina Benko and Christopher Kromer
in Post Mortem
(© Joan Marcus)
Tina Benko and Christopher Kromer
in Post Mortem
(© Joan Marcus)
A.R. Gurney is clearly worried about the future. Three of his most recent (and most political) plays -- all produced at The Flea -- are set many years from now and involve disturbingly dystopic societies whose origins appear to have their roots in current events. O Jerusalem involves a futuristic era staging a play that deals with political events leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Screen Play resets the film classic Casablanca in 2015 Buffalo, where a conservative U.S. government bogged down by foreign wars, is trying to keep its citizens from emigrating to Canada. Now comes Post Mortem, a satiric, self-referential work that begins in a bleak, totalitarian future at a faith-based university in the Midwest. While the play shows some promise, it has a ways to go before fulfilling it.

Alice (Tina Benko) is a drama teacher at the aforementioned university, who is asked by one of her students, Dexter (Christopher Kromer), to direct his senior thesis. His topic: a little-known late 20th-century/early 21st-century playwright by the name of A.R. Gurney. The playwright uses this premise as a playful way to poke fun at his own reputation, as well as critical reaction to his work. In the play, Dexter has discovered that Gurney's final epic masterpiece, also entitled Post Mortem, was never produced and that the playwright himself died under mysterious circumstances.

The second scene of this intermissionless show jumps several more years into the future, as university student Betsy (Shannon Burkett) hosts a Q & A with Alice and Dexter. Political circumstances have changed dramatically -- apparently, all due to the duo's work on the lost Gurney play, which has "brought about peace among nations, and universal health care, and convenient public transportation, and an equitable tax system."

Obviously, Gurney's tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. And yet, his play still comes across as rather self-indulgent. The playwright takes easy jabs at conservatives and the religious right. Dick Cheney is the butt of many a joke (as well as a primary suspect in Gurney's supposed murder). And while there's nothing inherently wrong with such partisan humor, there's a cloying sensibility in the work that is off-putting, even if you agree with Gurney's assessment of contemporary politics. The most intriguing aspect of the play comes late in the show, as Alice ponders the one question that Gurney's fictional masterpiece did not address: How are we to live? It's only here that the playwright wrestles with more substantial ideas, but it's a little too little, too late.

Director Jim Simpson, the Flea's artistic director and Gurney's frequent collaborator, keeps the tone of the play fairly light throughout. The first scene features nearly farcical performances from Benko and Kromer, while the second scene keeps a sense of whimsy but adds a little more gravitas, particularly in Benko's work. The actress is especially impressive in her impassioned speeches towards the play's end. Kromer exudes a boyish charm that suits Dexter well. Burkett, meanwhile, fully mines the humor of her somewhat ditzy character, particularly in a lengthy monologue about the social implications of cell phone usage.

Gurney has proved to be not only a prolific playwright, but one whose ideas and political sensibilities have continued to evolve. So, if his latest script is not exactly a great play, it's at least mildly amusing. Hopefully, the idea that a play titled Post Mortem will be the author's final work will not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I do look forward to seeing many more new A.R. Gurney-penned plays in the near future.