Paula Vogel’s bittersweet 1992 drama is a lesser effort from a playwright who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama (in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive”) and rack up a significant body of work. But this minor piece must have been a major comfort for the scribe, who wrote the delicate fantasy — the “last waltz” of a brother and sister soon to be parted by death — while her brother was dying of AIDS. Aside from its comfort value (a not insignificant gift to pass on to auds), the play also has the ephemeral air of a lovely dream that won’t last past dawn.
It is this quality of intangibility, carefully tucked into a sturdier comic sensibility, that Mark Brokaw’s production best captures for the Signature Company, which has installed Vogel as playwright-in-residence for its entire 2004-05 season.
Vogel is a feeling playwright, and she wears those feelings on her sleeve in this wistful comic treatment of love, loss and longing between a brother and sister on a fabulous journey that begins and ends on the deathbed that it never actually left.
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Reversing reality and reflecting a grieving survivor’s yearning to change events through self-sacrifice, Vogel gives the mysterious wasting disease of ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease) to Anna (Kristen Johnston), a first grade teacher in Baltimore.
Anna’s brother Carl (David Marshall Grant), a head librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, whisks her off for a European trip on which he hunts for miracle cures while she grasps what’s left of her life with both hands, through sexual encounters with a Third Man (Jeremy Webb) who presents himself in a variety of guises.
Despite the dialogue’s lively wit on matters like the difficulty of making oneself understood in a foreign language (and the ease of getting oneself laid wherever one goes), there’s a sameness to the pattern of events that locks the action into a repetitive circular movement. It goes like this: Carl and Anna arrive in some place like Amsterdam. Carl goes racing off after some quack who promises a cure. Anna gets caught up in what Vogel identifies as the seventh stage of dying (“the growing urge to fight the sickness of the body with the health of the body”) and seduces the Little Dutch Boy who saved the city by putting his thumb in the dyke. And then they move on.
So, while the scenes are constantly shifting, the dance steps are essentially the same. But however often the play’s brain shuts down, Jeremy Webb is sure to come flying out of the wings in one whimsical costume or another (by Michael Krass, indulging himself like a kid let loose in a toy shop) to make sure the comedy doesn’t go out of the fantasy. Webb is properly sinister as the doctors and black marketeers who keep holding out false hope, and a naughty joy as the various one-nighters who eagerly hop in and out of Anna’s hotel bed.
With his shock of unruly hair and acquired manner of perpetual adolescence, Grant gives Carl a little-lost-boy charm and innocence that makes him an ideal magnet for Vogel’s tender feelings for the character. Ever the brave soldier (a costume he wears to great effect in the final scene), Grant’s Carl is the perfect little brother who never was, but will always be.
Johnston’s natural comic gifts — the expressive oversized features and the equally generous way with a physical gesture — are exactly the right asset for Anna’s bedtime antics with the oddball characters she picks up on the road. But she more than rises to her big emotional moment at the end of the play, when she dances her last waltz with Carl.
Neil Patel sweeps aside the pulley-drawn curtains that have served as scene dividers throughout the show and leaves the set entirely bare for their farewell. No longer doubling as hospital rooms and examining offices, the monochromatic white walls and floor of the stage suddenly expand into a grand ballroom with stately Corinthian columns — and the infinite space of eternity.