‘Death’ Resurrected Through Solid Acting

“Normal people do not hold trials in their living rooms,” says Bill (Brandan S. Griffin ’16) to his sister and father between verbal spars. And yet normal people do go through the absurd motions of accusation, betrayal, and self-denial that are presented so explosively in “Cheating Death,” a dramatic double-tale of troubled families. In the first piece—“Stingers,” a new work written by Andrew J. Boyd ’14 and directed by Sam S. Richman ’15—the screenplay’s crushing wit and masterful presentation of family tensions was paired with excellent direction and a strong cast to create a laudable piece. In “Cheating Death”—which ran in the Adams Pool Theater from October 4-6—“Stingers” was followed by an adaptation of André Gide’s existentialist classic “The Immoralist.” The second piece, however proceeded in fits and starts. The directing of William H. Ryan ’14—who also wrote the adaptation—was strong in some scenes, yet seemed to sag in others, and while the acting was on par with that of “Stingers,” the reimagined plot failed to live up to Gide’s vision.

The unique brand of despair and dismissiveness found in “Stingers” was centered on the role of attorney Phil Pinkerton (Adam J. Conner ’14, a Crimson business editor), an aging patriarch. His unaccomplished dilettante daughter Nina (Camille Z. Coppola ’14) and good-for-nothing son (Brandan S. Griffin ’16) coerce him into coming to his own retirement party only to turn on him and accuse him of having ruined, among other things, their lives, their mother’s life, and his own moral sensibility. Boyd’s script moves dexterously between many elements: psychological drawing-room warfare, scatological releases (literal and figurative), and the classic frustration of lost hopes.

Connor was unimpeachable in his mix of scruffy faux-cynical humor and guarded vulnerability. His performance, a combination of helpless limping and angry gesticulating, fully related the poignancy of his character. Coppola’s painfully proper voice as Nina came out realistically pencil-thin and hollowly self-righteous—revealing Nina’s own hypocrisy even as she railed against her father’s. Griffin, the alternately meek son and avaricious parasite of daddy’s patronage, nailed his role with only minor lapses into melodrama.

“The Immoralist” also dealt with these sort of domestic confrontations. Gill (Ari D. Brenner ’14) has been through it all. The prototypical successful man, he’s literally just begun making love to his newlywed wife (Leonie A. Oostrom ’15) when he suddenly falls prey to cancer and finds himself whisked away to a life in hospital beds. When a test later shows that he is in remission, Gill and his wife must now decide what to do with their lives.

The acting was mostly commendable, within the limitations of the play’s rather narrow interpretation of Gide’s novella. In Brenner’s bewildered Gill we had a superb central figure. His voice, ranging from loud and suave to pitifully hopeless, was complemented by the fluidity of his body movements. For example, the way he slowly rolled his head on the bed sheets as he regains consciousness in the hospital was a nuanced gesture. However, Oostrom’s twitching and squeaky fast talk around her sick hubby in the hospital seemed to be more the motions of a seated schoolgirl fighting the need to relieve her bladder than the pain of a genuinely distressed woman. When he came to, her “you’re awake!” was jarringly perky. Oostrum’s strongest acting came out in moments of silence, when her enormously expressive face betrayed all the sorrow and disappointment she has tried to hide from her husband.

Both of these plays dealt with characters who take their families for granted—a theme often communicated by the way actors treated the objects in the room as disposable. In “The Immoralist” nothing was more heart-wrenching about Oostrum’s suffering than when she painstakingly put away the cocktail glasses her husband and his lover (Alice F. Berenson ’16) had emptied in her absence. Unable even to summon the strength to recork an empty bottle, she was devastated by the revelation that she, like a wine glass that can be cast aside, was an object in Gill’s life.

Lighting and sound effects in both plays were powerful in underscoring the real issues at stake. Especially effective in “Stingers” was the record that Phil gently lifted up and set to play when his children are out—showing his romantic and weaker side. Like Phil, the record is brittle and unsteady—the old-time music it plays sputters and goes out. When his children leave the room Phil stood under a projected shadow of chickenwire fencing, which implied his status of prisoner in his own home.

Regardless of quality of the acting, both plays hinged largely on the quality of the structural confines that actors had to work within. There was no doubt that the leading actors were the strongest in both productions; however, their formidable performances sometimes faltered because of a lacking script or questionable directing.

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