Planting supernatural gimmickry amidst romantic-comedy norms has been a winning formula for faves from “Blithe Spirit” to “Prelude to a Kiss.” But it’s been merely formulaic many more times. There’s certainly a stronger whiff of sitcom than inspiration in Michael McKeever’s “Charlie Cox Runs With Scissors,” making its West Coast bow at Marin Theater Company. Yet the very innocuousness struck by this pudding of fantasy, yoks and schmaltz should win it long, crowd-pleasing life at dinner theaters and in suburban rep.
Nondescript, middle-aged Charlie (Howard Swain) finds himself at a customer-free hotel (as a projected title informs us) “somewhere between Phoenix and nowhere.” The events that led him there are recalled both by him and by sidekick Wally (Liam Vincent), who tends to quibble over the details to a more-irksome-than-funny extent. Seems Charlie once gave up a “promising writing career” to “play it safe,” accomplishing the latter so fully that a surprise midlife diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease had him yelping, “I can’t be dying, I haven’t lived!”
With no meaningful relationships or accomplishments worth staying put for, he drove into the desert, where hitchhiker Wally materialized to freak Charlie out by knowing too much private info about him. Pressed for explanation, the vaguely Goth-punk-looking, bitchy-queen-acting Wally shrugged, “Dude, it’s simple. I’m your Death.”
The majority of the humor in “Scissors” hinges on the all-too-convincingly bland protagonist being rattled by Wally’s bored, bratty, let’s-get-this-life-over-with attitude, as well as the fact that no one else can see or hear this more-grousing-than-grim reaper. This makes for plenty of wacky awkward moments when Charlie is caught in mid-“imaginary friend” conversation by Nell (Anne Darragh), owner of the Oasis Hotel where guy and ghoul are stranded after their car breaks down. Nell reluctantly moved from the big city with a beloved husband whose sudden death left her stuck, alone with a bedridden (offstage) father-in-law.
Nell and Charlie are two wallflowers clearly meant to entwine. The script delays that inevitability with some contrived conflicts, like the local cowboy type (Mark LaRiviere) irked at having a rival for Nell’s affections; or Charlie’s flirtation with suicide, which makes even less sense than other elements in a script whose situational and psychological logic wavers between the banal and the arbitrary.
Halfway through comes the arrival of Kiki (Isabelle Ortega); while Wally is Charlie’s personal mortality, Kiki is his assigned representative of True Love. She urges Charlie, “Live, damn you, live!” while her nemesis spews dated teen-slang bon mots like, “I am so not helping you!”
You might well ask why only our protagonist (who may have months or years to live) gets a Death or Love to boss him around — shouldn’t everyone have their own? And why don’t they reflect something about him, rather than being caricatures of types (sarcastic Gen-X whiner, fiery Latina vamp) that couldn’t be less relevant? Or do the Higher Powers assign these things in odd-couple comedy terms? Perhaps the afterlife has Nielsen ratings, too. In that case, McKeever’s penchant for ending scenes on a punchline or cliffhanger could keep both the living and dead from channel-surfing during commercial breaks.
Genericisms like “Life is way too short” and “It isn’t death you’re running away from — it’s life!” line the “deep” end of “Scissors'” shallow, tepid pool. It should be noted, however, that MTC’s opening-night aud took to it all like a ’70s Marin hottub flashback. This is, simply, the kind of play that appeals greatly to people who aren’t critics, and who wonder why no one does all-Neil Simon seasons anymore.
Swain, Darragh and LaRiviere are good actors who survive having to pretend this nonsense is witty and warm. Vincent and Ortega are ditto, but between the writing and their own interpretative choices, these turns will not go down as resume highlights. Most curious element among the OK design contribs in Lee Sankowich’s competent production is the decision to paint Giulio Perrone’s hotel-lobby set an unappetizing cement-gray hue.