An Evening With Kirk Douglas
nytheatre.com review by PJ Grisar
August 18, 2012
Kirk Douglas is a legend of the silver screen, a philanthropist, a near-centenarian and the subject of the new play, An Evening with Kirk Douglas by Katherine Maughan with direction by Kerry McGuire. The play, composed of two, interrelated one-acts touches on metaphysics, office politics (of the heavenly variety), and relationships all while bringing the yucks. It’s a great time, although a bit light on Kirk.
The first one-act, The Death of Kirk Douglas presents the classic, high-stakes scenario of a dead body in the room. The accidental murderers, (Morgan Grace Jarrett and Winston Noel as Maisie and Walter Kingsley) are on their first wedding anniversary, holed up in a crummy motel in “rustic” northern California with their victim rigor-mortising in the bathtub. The body is largely incidental and it’s the dynamic of their relationship that takes the foreground. I’ve encountered a number of writing exercises like this set-up: dead body or bomb, characters can’t address the loaded object and must dispose of their own baggage/defuse their own tensions first. It’s a nice exercise in subtext and Maughan lets the real cream of the scene rise to the top. Revelations from the hilariously frenetic Maisie and her even-keel, cooler-minds-prevail husband build up with a nice, natural pacing-- although the antsy lighting design by Eva Jacobs proved, at times, to be a distraction. Of course, this is less Agamemnon than Macbeth (though Maisie does have an “out damn spot moment”) but the big reveal from Walter, poignant as it is, is handled with such delicacy and poise it could hold it’s own in the arena of Aristotelian tragedy. Without giving too much away, though, that the final revelation, who they killed, is less of a surprise when one consults their playbill.
Kirk Douglas Goes to Heaven, gives us an upended look at the mechanics of the afterlife. The usual suspects are all here, if a little different. Winston Noel’s God is appropriately sanctimonious if a bit of a “starfucker,” Brian Fass is beautifully realized as a burned-out concierge of a Saint Peter, and Austin Rye has a hell of a turn as a hacky sack-playing, freethinking Jesus who laments the loss of his old gang of pariahs in favor of a Tea-Party-type Elect (Brandon Scott Jacobs as the Evangelical Clayton fills this role wonderfully) in the hereafter. Rounding out the cast are Chrissie Gruebel and Claire Ayoub as victims of a school bus crash and Gruebel, again, as a hooker Jesus is keen to get past the pearly gates. There are some great gags in this act and even a Lanford Wilson-esque bit of parallel action between the two scenes which is quite well done. Oh, yes, Winston Noel also plays Kirk upon his arrival at Kingdom Come.
It’s no surprise that Maughan and most of her capable ensemble have a background in improvisational comedy, working with such venues as the People’s Improv Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade. As a company they have refined a wonderful patter of comedic timing which is a keystone of any good improv troupe. I would not be surprised if a lot of this material (and maybe the original conceit) was a result of some improv-based exploration. The format of the two interconnected acts is not dissimilar to many long-form games or maybe even a judicious “edit” (cut to: heaven). But, as long as we’re taking suggestions from the audience, while the many meandering plot points and walk-ons are an accepted part of a night at the ol’ improve, for a written script sometimes another kind of editing is needed, from the backline or otherwise.