No one wants a prolonged death, but at a mere 50 minutes, Mark Schultz’s Deathbed, currently at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, feels way too brief to make much of an impact. The play’s multiple plot lines revolve around death and longing, and include the cancer diagnosis of Martha (Christa Scott-Reed), which threatens to ruin her marriage to disease-phobic Danny (Jonathan Walker); the unrequited love that Steven (Brandon Miller) has for his best friend Martin (Ryan King) and what that does to Martin’s marriage to Susan (Emily Donahoe); and Thomas’ (Ross Bickell) planned suicide, to be videotaped by the local paper boy (Clifton Guterman).
The characters interconnect in various ways, and are also grouped together by a framing device that has two women (Charlotte Booker and Patricia Randell) reading about all of this in a book entitled Deathbed, by an author also named Mark Schultz.
Each scene is extremely brief, and character details are sketched out with remarkable economy that still allows for some truly emotional moments. For example, the awkward pauses between friends Susan and Martha once the latter reveals her illness feel painfully real, as does the heartbreaking moment when Martha asks Danny if he’ll hold her hand while she’s dying, and he answers “maybe.” Unfortunately, other aspects of the script are wanting in terms of character development and satisfying resolutions to storylines. The lopsided love triangle between Steven, Martin, and Susan never achieves much momentum, and Susan’s relationship to her grandfather, Thomas, begs for further exploration.
Several of the actors, under Wendy C. Goldberg’s brisk direction, do what they can to flesh out their slimly written roles. Walker seems to have so much going on inside of him that it makes Danny’s sometimes erratic or extreme actions feel well-motivated. Guterman has a freakishly elastic face that adds just the right comic touch to the proceedings, particularly in a scene with Miller’s Steven. Bickell brings a dignity to his portrayal of Thomas, who is surprisingly eloquent about his reasons for wanting to die. The remaining cast members all have some good moments, but can’t overcome the flimsiness of their parts.
While each of the multiple plot lines could use further development, Deathbed still has enough going for it to make it worthwhile. But with a ticket price of $45, audience members are paying nearly a dollar a minute.