Death doesn’t just represent the end of one life, but the disruption of a balance of power. This can have dire consequences if your family happens to have real power…or at least wealth, as is true of the characters in Elizabeth Coplan’s ’Til Death, presented by Abingdon Theatre Company at Theatre Row. The potential is there for an eye-opening look at the porous border between emotional and material concerns. Unfortunately, all we get is an end-of-life melodrama, kept on life support by revelations that are about as shocking as static electricity from a musty old blanket. You too may long for the sweet relief of death before the 75-minute runtime is over.
While there’s no media conglomerate on the line, the Gormans are comfortably in the one percent. The play opens at the birthday party of matriarch Mary (Judy Kaye), who is enjoying her golden years with her second husband, Michael (Robert Cuccioli). Her hotshot lawyer son, Jason (Dominick LaRuffa Jr.), has just bought them an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo, topping this coup by offering his sister, Lucy (Amy Hargreaves), some unsolicited career advice (she’s also a lawyer). Lucy’s teenage son, Nick (Michael Lee Brown), is a soccer star, while everyone pretends to appreciate the art created by Anne (Whitney Morse), the black sheep of the family. They’re the picture of American prosperity, but you can’t take it with you, as Mary knows all too well. She has stage four ovarian cancer, and in the next scene, she is contemplating euthanasia.
While Anne and Michael aren’t entirely sold on this course of action, Lucy seems a little too eager to get it over with, as if she has a pressing SoulCycle class to attend. Hargreaves excels at the unenviable task of playing this loathsome character, who clearly sees herself as the only adult in the room, and who regularly reminds Michael that he has no formal claim to the house once mom is dead. Antonio Consuegra costumes her in an angry navy sweater vest over a light blue button-down — an ensemble we would be sure to steer clear of were we to see its wearer bearing a cup of scalding coffee. Lucy never breaks out of this Karen mold, despite a last-minute effort to redeem her.
In fact, of the entire group, only Mary seems like someone you would want to spend any time with, and Kaye bring ample warmth to an underwritten role. Cuccioli is slightly less tolerable as Michael, although we can see what joy his dad jokes bring to Mary in her time of pain. LaRuffa has no room to maneuver his character beyond our first impression (jerk), while Morse and Brown mostly fade into the faux cement walls. We never form an attachment to any of these characters, so it’s hard to lament their inevitable family break-up. To keep us engaged, Coplan relies on a series of increasingly scandalous disclosures, each of which stick for about as long as an undercooked spaghetti noodle before she tosses out the next one.
A strong production and committed performances can salvage a poor script, sometimes even knocking it into so-bad-it’s-good territory. That’s not the case here. Chad Austin’s direction has all the dramatic verve of a funeral dirge and is significantly undermined by strange design choices.
Teresa L. Williams’s set resembles less a rich lady’s home than the waiting room of a therapist’s office, with its purposefully textured grey walls, tasteful art books, and prominently displayed box of tissues (why this family of millionaires decides to let mom die on what appears to be an IKEA chaise is anyone’s guess). This inoffensively clinical vibe is underscored by the constant din of smooth jazz (baffling sound design by Jesse Starr). Lisa Renkel’s busy projections desperately try to compensate for the lack of depth in the script by blasting us with family photos during the scene transitions, but it all flies by too fast for us to get a sense of what we’re looking at and why we should care.
At very least, ‘Til Death leaves its audience with one vital message: Life is too short, so what on earth are you doing wasting it in here?