The Civilians explore one of life's biggest questions: death.
The Undertaking begins with a character describing the produce aisle at Whole Foods, where you would have to look very hard to find anything rotting. "Death is almost like hidden," she observes. This acknowledgment of America's squeamishness about death and how it manifests itself everywhere (especially in the marketplace) is an excellent entry point to this exploration of mortality, now playing at 59E59. Unfortunately, like an organic strawberry, it doesn't last.
The show comes from the Civilians, New York's premier investigative theater troupe, which has produced intelligent, tuneful, and highly theatrical plays about a variety of subjects, including the porn industry in the recent musical Pretty Filthy. Like that show, The Undertaking derives its text from real interviews. Unlike that show, these interviews are neither diverse nor digested, resulting in a show that feels both thin and unenlightening.
Much of this 80-minute play features just two characters, Steve (Dan Domingues) and Lydia (Aysan Celik), having a late-night chat about death. She talks about consuming Ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic brew) in Brazil and having an out-of-body experience. He discusses his nagging anxiety that he will die miserable, alone, and in poverty. Neither of these things is very interesting, but Lydia's love of Jean Cocteau's Orpheus convinces both of them to attempt to journey to the underworld with Lydia acting as Steve's "psychopomp," a kind of stygian cheerleader. Psychopom-poms aloft, she tells him, "You're being the best Steve Cosson that you can be," as they try on gloves for the voyage. Later, they build a pillow fort for telling secrets and getting to the bottom of Steve's fear of death. We half expect Bloody Mary to make a cameo before the evening is through.
Steve Cosson is the artistic director of the Civilians and the writer-director of The Undertaking. Several passages convey Cosson's reluctance to put himself in the play, and that anxiety, at least, proves to be well-founded. The Undertaking feels more self-involved than bravely personal. The fact that Cosson's fear derives from no immediate health concern only serves to lower the stakes.
Thankfully, Cosson includes other voices in the show, like British philosopher Simon and skier Bryn, who nearly died after colliding with a tree. Their stories and observations give the piece some much-needed outside perspective, but the interviews feel less contextualized than they could be.
Like ghosts crossing back from the spirit realm, the voices of the real subjects are occasionally heard onstage (seamless sound integration by Mikhail Fiksel). Not only does this tie the script to real people, but it also reveals just how authentic the performances are. Domingues gives a spookily on-the-money portrayal of actor Everett Quinton, whose no-nonsense interview about losing two partners to AIDS is one of the more moving parts of the show. Celik is not as successful. In her role as Lydia, she adopts an accent that migrates from South America to India over the course of the play. It makes us wish we could go somewhere as exotic and exciting.
Sadly, we're stuck for the duration staring at Marsha Ginsberg's set, which looks like a hastily improvised IKEA floor display. Plastic white streamers form the walls, allowing our central characters to "cross over" into the netherworld while also providing a surface for Tal Yarden's well-selected projections. At least Ginsberg gets the costumes right: After listening to 80 minutes of Lydia's spiritual mumbo jumbo, we are certain she is the kind of woman who would wear a shag throw rug as a poncho to Fort Greene Park.
By the end, we gather that Steve and Lydia had a really significant slumber party, complete with retro music, tequila, and startling moments of self-discovery. That still doesn't get us any closer to understanding death. Cosson seems to acknowledge this by the end when the piece throws up its hands: "When it happens to us. We'll find out," Steve says about the possibility of an afterlife right before it slowly dawns on him, "Oh, god, or we won't! F*ck." It's fine to admit what you don't know, but it would be nice to see a little bit more of a fight before the inevitable surrender.