Death in England
Perhaps playwright Sam Bobrick fancied a cross between a Noel Coward confection and Woody Allen's Death Knocks. Perhaps he was tickled by the notion of blending an Agatha Christie country house mystery with J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, which was given such an acclaimed, if arrogantly distorted, revival a few years back by Stephen Daldry. Perhaps he thought it was time to spoof Death Takes a Holiday, which served as an opportunity for Evelyn Venable to emote before movie cameras with Fredric March in long ago and far away 1934.
Whatever theatrical travesty he had in mind, however, he couldn't possibly have intended the travesty he has produced and calls Death in England, a play so addled that simply giving a plot rundown is a major challenge. But here goes: Death, wearing a cheesy black robe, arrives in a drawing room belonging to sanatorium operator Michael Hedges and his wife Irene, and served by maid Jane, who's given to abrupt hysterics. Unable to make a stiff of stiff-upper-lipped homeowner Michael, Death decides he's lost his lethal touch. When, however, news comes that Lester Hedges from down the lane has kicked the proverbial bucket, bamboozled Death decides to stick around and find out who has usurped his power.
It's just about then when Inspector Mirabelle shows up to match wits with Death and to make what he can of the arrivals of a floozy called Constance Lawson, a layabout called Alfie Crown, and a mysterious man in a tweed suit who calls himself Jonathan Pike but who turns out to be Life--or not to be. Only slightly past this juncture--when Crown dies in full view of everyone and there's a "struggle between Life and Death"--does this reviewer resign himself to the improbability of getting a fix on the characters' inconsistencies or figuring out what comic or satirical or parodic motivation is intended.
Some years back Bobrick, who was involved with the television series Get Smart, wrote the Broadway situation comedy Norman, Is That You?, which had audiences giggling for a while at the notion of how homosexuality can throw unsuspecting parents off balance. And in Death in England Bobrick does show he still has the ability to toss off a comic line. But just one--literally. Mirabelle, who confesses shortly after he's materialized that he loves words, says, "You can't tell a book by its cover, although that's usually where you find the title."
As for other belly laughs, or even mild chuckles, the rest is silence. Meaning that the actors, among them Todd Butera and Karin Wolfe, do the best they can, which isn't a whole helluva lot. Nor has director Scott C. Embler figured out a method whereby he might snatch stage life from the jaws of textual death.