When the Messenger is Hot
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
October 6, 2007
JOSIE 2: Why is she driving?
JOSIE 3: Why did you let her drive?
JOSIE 1: Are you sure you're OK to drive the truck?
MOM: I'm fine...
This is a representative snapshot from Laura Eason's clever, snazzy, but ultimately uninspired daughter-mother dramedy, offered by Steppenwolf Theater Company. The creative device of having Josie played simultaneously by three female actors, among other theatrical treats, is amusing and slickly delivered. Fairly quickly, though, one yearns for the static chattering noise to end and the mundane portrayals to elevate. The former does, but the latter never quite happens.
Adapted by Eason from Elizabeth Crane's short-story collection of the same title, When the Messenger is Hot opens 59E59's GoChicago! Festival. The story is centered around Josie, a 38-year-old published writer who receives a phone call from her deceased mother who died three years before of lung cancer. The call is placed from a bus depot in North Dakota. We see Mom appear on the other side of the stage, all smiles, reassuring Josie that she will be "on the next bus" and in New York in a few days.
Josie asks Mom to first come to Chicago, so Josie can tell her about "Dad...and the house...and the dog." The scene flashes back to Mom's illness and the opera-singing career that she refused to give up. Mom turns out to be a rather colorful character: she swears readily and gleefully and has an opinion on everything, especially Josie's love life, which has run the gamut from bad to worse. "What do you think you did wrong?" is Mom's typical response to each of Josie's short-lived—never exceeding four months—affairs.
We meet Josie's men, all played with charm by the same actor, and they have one thing in common: a few quirky lines, and barely three minutes of stage time before they are out of the picture for good. They leave you with impressions as permanent as the steam fogging your glasses while having a bowl of hot soup. Josie's insecurity is evident, but what is not clear is what factors may have contributed to it, or how it manifests itself in other aspects of Josie's life. Again, complexity is sorely lacking.
Next, Mom's story of coming back to life hits the news. She gets on Larry King and Oprah and is offered a sitcom. I won't reveal the twist that comes at the end, although I am not sure whether it leads to a light-bulb moment or serves as an outlandish exercise to illustrate a simple point.
All that doesn't take away the fact that this is light and breezy fun, which a lot of the audience members around me would no doubt tell you. Many one-liners even outdo some of the better sitcom offerings. I also enjoyed Josie's endearing sarcasm and her facetiously scattered thought process. There is a crucial scene that knocked my socks off, when Josie finally has an achingly tender encounter with a nice man...finally! Those few minutes almost make up for the whole show. Almost. I guess what I need is more—more on what makes her and her mother tick, what drives them apart other than the usual expectation gap, and what truly bonds them, that makes it so hard for Josie to let go.
The three actors playing Josie (Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz, and Amy Warren) are natural and balanced with one another. They are not intended to be three different aspects of Josie's personality, but I wish that they were. It would have added more tension to the chirpy yet incessant and monophonic inner dialogues. Molly Regan's Mom is spunky and truthful, and a convincing opera singer. Coburn Goss is a treat as Josie's different men; he even gives over-the-top moments real credibility. Director Jessica Thebus moves things along at high speed and moves the actors around with thoughtful consideration, which greatly boosts the material's appeal, but not enough to veil its thinness.
This play has moments of piquant wit and genuine heart. It offers a pleasant enough evening, but one with precious little new insight into the grand issues of loss, grief and self-discovery.