Andrew Hinderaker's uneasy new play blends gallows humor and heartfelt drama.
Theatergoers realize they are encountering a playwright with a decidedly quirky worldview in the first few minutes of the piece, as Jason (Gabriel Ebert) applies for a job at a company that helps people compose and refine their suicide notes.
The fact that the small business is run by the fast-talking Scott (Toby Leonard Moore), a man who might easily have stepped out of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, only makes the play even more unique. Jests about whether or not an opening line is a grabber and Scott's demanding (and inanely demeaning) treatment of his other employee Perry (Corey Hawkins) inspire chuckles, albeit sometimes uncomfortable ones.
In short order, Jason's been hired and has his first client, Norm (James McMenamin), and during their first encounter, audiences -- and boss Scott -- come to realize that Jason really wants to help Norm, but not in making sure that he ends his life with the right sort of note on hand, but rather, to stay alive.
With this development -- and the interchanges that Jason has at his home with younger brother Tommy (Jake O'Connor) -- the play makes a decided turn away from its comedy and into the realm of serious, and sometimes affecting, drama.
It's an interesting one-two dramaturgical punch, and director Berry and the company certainly navigate the tonal shift of the piece with flair. What proves to be more problematic are ways in which Jason's and Norm's journeys vie for theatergoers' attention and hearts.
Early on, it seems as if the play belongs to Jason, but once the reasons for his actions are made clear, the play becomes increasingly about Norm and what has pushed him to the brink. But even after this shift has occurred, the playwright keeps ratcheting up the drama surrounding Jason in vain, and ultimately overloads the brief 85-minute piece.
Nevertheless, Ebert proves exceptionally appealing, delivering a performance that's both gentle and intensely felt, and McMenamin's turn as hangdog Norm provokes both bemused smiles and waves of empathy. As Scott, the play's showiest role, Moore channels the smarminess of a used car salesman and the dourness of an undertaker to terrific effect, and Hawkins imbues Perry with a self-effacing chipperness that amuses.