nytheatre.com review by Pete Boisvert
August 22, 2010
Set in the aftermath of a (fictitious) landmark Supreme Court decision which has legalized euthanasia, Plaid Wall's production of Kirk White's The Means is an ambitious although only partially successful satire of the death panel controversy that flooded cable news outlets last summer. Insurance companies, struggling with the staggering price of end of life care, have eagerly begun marketing "Voluntary Life Ceasement" (referred to as VLC throughout the play).
Max, a rapacious life insurance salesman, makes a substantial living convincing ailing policy holders to end their lives. His most effective carrot to dangle is the Life Gift, a percentage of the deceased's policy that can be bequeathed to the departed's survivors. Max (played bombastically by the playwright), of course receives a percentage of the policy for his efforts.
Working in tandem with Max is Spencer, a medical school drop-out who works as an end-of-life technician. Spencer's role is to administer a series of injections which numb, paralyze, and finally induce cardiac arrest in the patient. Traveling the back roads of South Georgia, these insurance shills attempt to sell their ghastly procedure to infirm policyholders and their loved ones, including Colleen, whose mother has recently been diagnosed with a rapidly developing case of lymphoma.
Max sees VLC as a booming growth business, constrained only by his Baptist clients' strong aversion to the sin of suicide. Over a great many drinks at the local hotel bar, he lays out his newest sales angle to an aghast Spencer: conscripting the Church itself to aid his cause by coming out in support of euthanasia in exchange for a large cut of the Life Gifts of its parishioners. A wholly avaricious character, Max is quite explicit in his desire to profit off the deaths of his customers.
Spencer's doubts about the shady ethics of their work lead him to give Colleen advanced warning of Max's visit. Once he encounters the shotgun-toting Colleen first hand, his feelings are further muddied by an intense attraction to and identification with her.
Two scenes in the play are particularly effective. In the first, we flash back and forth between Max's sales pitch and Spencer's legally mandated description of the stages of death. (The identity of the patient they're pitching to is revealed in a nice twist late in the play.) The contrast of Max's exuberant salesmanship with Spencer's clinical medical descriptions very effectively defines the scope of their ghoulish business.
Later, in the penultimate scene, Max tries to sell a Baptist minister named Brother Booker on his plan to achieve the Church's blessing for assisted suicide. The crafty negotiations between two polished salesmen at defiant odds with each other provide the play with a much needed jolt of energy.
White's Max is a broad caricature, gleefully selling death for his own financial gain with a booming charisma. At the other end of the spectrum, Austin Jones plays Spencer as a mess of ambivalence, serving weak justifications for his role in the sale of death that he himself doesn't seem to believe in. Both performances would probably fit well in a broader farce, but fall flat in a play that calls for more nuanced moments. Between these two extremes Jennifer Jones White is far more successful as Colleen, masking a tender humanity with her brusque, aggressive exterior.
The stand out performance comes from TJ Austyn, who delights as the bible-thumping Booker in southern fried sermons that serve as interstitials between scenes. Austyn brings a greater subtlety when the curtain is drawn back on Booker at the climax of the play. Austyn, with his precise timing and sharp delivery, is adept at maintaining the tricky balancing act between cynicism and sincerity that the play requires.
Camilla Millican Samuelson's costumes and John Wolf's lighting subtly support the production, while drawing no overt attention to themselves. The uncredited sound design consists entirely of clips of an acoustic instrumental version of the Wings classic "Live and Let Die." Although the choice of music works well at first, eventually the repetition becomes grating, as does the abrupt and clumsy editing job.
The set is more successful, if quite sparse. It consists only of a set of chairs, stools, and one long plank, but is utilized in a sharp and concise manner. Locations are quickly recognizable and have a solid feel, despite being crafted from such meager elements.
The Means is clearly more comfortable when it is playing with broad satire. However the play attempts to shift gears less successfully, taking on a contemplative tone as it wrestles with deeper questions of faith. Director Jim Wren attempts to finesse the tonal change, but White's characters are drawn too broadly and cynically to effectively pull off such an ambitious transition.