Just over two years ago, Apparition Prods. hit the scene with its namesake play, Anne Washburn's eerie "Apparition," and the result was a splendid production of a flimsy script. The pattern holds for the company's second outing, "Deathbed," which is so well staged it almost overcomes Mark Schultz's superficial writing.
Just over two years ago, Apparition Prods. hit the scene with its namesake play, Anne Washburn’s eerie “Apparition,” and the result was a splendid production of a flimsy script. The pattern holds for the company’s second outing, “Deathbed,” which is so well staged it almost overcomes Mark Schultz’s superficial writing.Though it juggles nine characters, each facing death or loneliness, the 50-minute show spends most of its time creating a tone, while Schultz’s script constantly reminds us it’s a metaphor, not a linear narrative. First, we first meet two anonymous women (Patricia Randell, Charlotte Booker), possibly in a hospital waiting room, who are reading a novel called “Deathbed,” written by Mark Schultz. The following scenes are presumably the book’s chapters, but they are too truncated to tell a traditional story. Instead, we see flashes of events: Martha (Christa Scott-Reed) tells her boyfriend she has cancer, end of scene. Thomas (Ross Bickell) tells his granddaughter he’s going to commit suicide, end of scene. Eventually, details emerge that tenuously connect the characters, but the overall sense of loss is far more powerful than any particular plotline. Stylized dialogue underscores that effect, until characters become generalized vessels for sadness. But that doesn’t lead to endless despair. Director Wendy C. Goldberg turns transitions between scenes into deep breaths, with actors moving slowly in half-light. Ryan Rumery’s score — a blend of piano, percussion, and ambient whooshes — has a persistent rhythm, but it’s more like a heartbeat than a feverish thump. Emerging from this concoction, each segment feels like a meditative offering. Josh Epstein’s dream-like lighting extends the tranquility, and Alexander Dodge’s set strengthens the symbolism by creating two identical rooms that are rolled to the center of the stage. Characters experience various crises, but they are always on matching couches, in front of matching framed pictures on matching blue walls. Meanwhile, thesps flit between realistic emotion and presentational acting. Take Clifton Guterman, who plays Thomas’ paperboy: He ends up watching the old man down a handful of pills, and his first reaction is impulsive — a quick kiss on the lips. Then his face draws into an exaggerated mask of grief, and he holds that look for a pregnant beat, powerfully distilling what just happened. As molded by Goldberg, these elements have an unforced, gorgeous harmony. Even without text, they would remind us that despite individual circumstances, pain has a universal weight. But that’s just the problem: Schultz’s text doesn’t deepen the effect. He creates a lovely shell for the designers to work with, but fails to fill it with insight. Quickly presenting the connections between different types of sorrow is not the same as exploring them, and a cop-out conclusion essentially apologizes for having nothing more to say. The production’s bountiful style can’t erase that lack of substance.