Death, it happens: A girl’s guide to death
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
February 27, 2012
The creators of Death, it happens: a girl’s guide to death had to know that it would be a somewhat tricky show to review. In fact, they might have been counting on that. If a reviewer absolutely loved it (which I didn’t), fantastic! If he hated it (which I also didn’t), he’d be a louse to tear apart a show in which four women relive the experience of burying their fathers. But what if his experience fell somewhere in the middle? If that were the case—as it was for me—he would, hopefully, tread lightly and fairly. If that sounds somewhat calculated, it’s because there is a certain air of calculation and maybe gimmick to the show (the press release promises it “will do for death what the Vagina Monologues did for vaginas”). But it’s theater; that’s certainly forgivable.
What isn’t forgivable in a show like this is an air of untruthfulness, and there’s no problem there. Death is plenty truthful. Having recently gone through the experience of several deaths in my own family, I instantly recognized the horrible bizarreness of being a mourner—the obsession over what to eat/feed people, being presented with a funeral “package,” the distant relatives and strangers who suddenly appear. In fact, although none of the writer/performers seems to be Jewish, the show’s structure reminded me very much of a shiva, the Jewish ritual period of mourning in which we sit at home for seven days, mostly talking and praying.
It opens in darkness while the women tell us about the fathers they lost. As they do, we strain to make out the details of framed photos of the men that rest on chairs and are lit by flashlight. The lights come up and, for the next hour, the foursome takes us through their experiences—while common threads exist, each is unique. It was the uniqueness of each woman’s relationship to her father that most intrigued me. While it was disappointing to only get hints of these relationships (Rebecca Chiappone’s fascinatingly complex adopted father, the mysterious circumstances surrounding Bricken Sparacino’s father’s death in his garage), that wasn’t the show they set out to create.
That opening moment is revealing. This isn’t a play about the fathers; it’s about the daughters. Which is great, but Death is mostly performed as a guide for future mourners and funeral attendees—what to do and not to do, to say or not to say, etc. While affecting and amusing in places, this structure felt a little too clean, too pat, for the chaotic wave of emotions death brings with it. All that chaos is there, though, buried in some very nice writing and performances. In particular, Maureen Van Trease and Tiffany May McRae (who played Courtenay Harrington-Bailey at the performance I saw) had moments of wonderfully soft and honest storytelling.
And when the storytelling is very specific, it can get under your skin. Maureen placing a handkerchief in her father’s back pocket because he always wore one, Courtenay’s memories of her stepfather’s Cape Cod boathouse as her mother sells it, Bricken’s first birthday after her dad died, Becca confessing, “If my Dad was gonna tell me, in his own way, that he loved me or that I mattered, I never heard it”—all surprising and moving. It’s when the writers move into more generalized observations and commentary (“What’s usual is what you miss the most,” Becca tells us) that the show gets into trouble. Like I said, the mess is in there. It’s just struggling to break free from out of a too-tidy bow.