Since its 1995 bow in Canada, Morris Panych’s “Vigil” has been produced in the U.K. and U.S., often under its more audience-friendly title “Auntie and Me.” But it’s never quite achieved the traction to open in Gotham. That may change with the tart and tasty Westport Country Playhouse production starring Timothy Busfield as the sardonic bank drudge tending to the dying aunt he hasn’t seen in 30 years.
It’s a hilarious, quirky and even heartfelt perf, which is helpful since the character of Kemp (Busfield) does most of the talking while his largely silent, elderly aunt (Helen Stenborg) reacts to his urging that she hurry up and die.
Panych’s wickedly dark script and Stephen DiMenna’s deft helming begin with a series of quick blackouts setting the offbeat, black humor of the piece. The nephew doesn’t bother mincing words about his wish to make this visit short and sour. He has his reasons.
Kemp is bitter since, as a lonely boy, he saw his aunt as a glamorous gal who failed to rescue him from his distant parents. Dad was a suicidal manic-depressive; Mom was a chain-smoking lush who cared more for her cat than for him.
Kemp was further wounded over the decades when his aunt failed to respond to his letters, only reaching out to him for attention in his middle age when the end of her life was looming.
But his unexpected appearance and newfound company make this isolated old woman rally. Kemp becomes more desperate as his days at her bedside turn into weeks and months.
“I’m concerned about your health,” he tells her at one point as she gains mobility, energy and “the appetite of a Teamster.” “It seems to be improving,” he says.
The dark comedy would play better as a tight single act, but it has two nifty reveals: One is a one-two punch at the end of the first act that gives both performers terrific comic payoffs. The other, toward the end of the play, is an audience stunner that gets one of the biggest sustained laughs in memory (and Busfield has a field day with it).
Busfield is a revelation as the hapless loser, somehow giving this nasty, nasal outcast a comic loopiness that is as bold as it is oddly endearing, without succumbing to sentimentality.
Though she’s mostly mute, Stenborg is as much a focus as Busfield, reacting to tales from the nephew’s colorful past (transvestitism, accordion playing, a Romanian dwarf tutor) and elaborate schemes (poison, electrocution, concussion) to accelerate her stalled journey to the great beyond.
Though Stenborg first looks suitably startled and later dumbfounded by her strange, I-don’t-caregiver, she doesn’t quite suggest the sophisticated elegance that once dazzled the young Kemp. But as her strange relationship with the nephew builds, so does the complexity of her characterization, and she has some lovely final scenes.
Panych’s script has several uneven spots: Some of the extravagant points in Kemp’s bio-rant have no follow-through, and the introduction of a larceny plot comes out of nowhere to little purpose.
But along the absurdist way, Panych scores points on the art of living and dying, the perils of isolation (whether young or old) and the need for the spiritual Miracle-Gro of human contact.
Andromache Chalfant’s set suggests a faded urban loft, an unusual nest for this old bird, while Ben Stanton’s lighting is both suitably dreary and electrifying, and Ilona Somogyi’s outfit for Kemp is a study of the defeated.
The play’s long vigil may finally prove fruitful with a major transfer. At the very least there’ll be life in venues that appreciate their comedy with a dark twist.