Perennial bad-boy Christopher Durang has mellowed to a fault in this uncharacteristically benign comic fable about spiritual redemption in an age of anxiety and despair. Durang delivers the anxiety and despair with his customary caustic wit in “Miss Witherspoon,” a surreal yarn about a “gloomy dead person” who stubbornly resists having her depressive aura cleansed through reincarnation. But the scribe makes such a dull case for spiritual redemption that the poor soul seems better off dead.
The unreal nature of this perky existential comedy is established with visual humor by Jeff Croiter’s penny-bright lighting and David Korins’ crayon-colored set of fake-flower border and golf-course-green lawn against a multipaneled backdrop of cerulean blue sky. We may be living in a pretty world, the mise en scene says, but it’s purely bogus.
A depressed middle-aged woman named Veronica (Kristine Nielsen) is unmoved by the artificial charms of this de-natured environment, which turns hostile when chunks of the American space station Skylab fall to Earth in her backyard. (Darron L. West’s alarming sound effects earn a chuckle.) Veronica gets the message and commits suicide.
So far, so good.
A spell in limbo doesn’t do much to improve Veronica’s mood.
“In the afterlife I’m considered to have a bad attitude,” she says, explaining why she has resisted all efforts at reincarnation. “Why can’t I just be left alone to fester and brood?” she wants to know, instead of being forced back to Earth by her busybody spiritual adviser, a serene Indian woman named Maryamma (Mahira Kakkar), for an unwanted attitude adjustment.
Why not, indeed, since Durang is in frisky form in these early argumentative scenes between Veronica and Maryamma, and director Emily Mann is shrewd enough to clear the decks for their wonderfully loopy philosophical duels.
Nielsen, memorable as Durang’s muse in “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” delivers Veronica’s nihilistic arguments in a hilarious state of belligerence, while recent Juilliard grad Kakkar uses the subtle art of the clean cut to parry her broad thrusts. Observing these two characters applying their adversarial views on reincarnation to the Rodgers & Hart song “Where or When” is to catch a particularly blissful example of Durang’s quirky wit.
Scribe also manages to hold his comic ground when Veronica (who for no apparent reason acquires the name “Miss Witherspoon” in the afterlife) begins the cycle of reincarnations that will gradually educate her in the redeeming joys of a purposeful life and in the end confer peace and tranquility on her troubled soul.
Since babies never fare well in Durang’s plays (four of them came to an untimely, Edward Goreylike end in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”), the baby scenes are the best. Here, much evil intelligence goes into one episode in which Veronica is reincarnated as the infant daughter of a doting couple with a vicious dog. Seeing her chance, the determined baby Veronica goads the animal into becoming her accomplice in her fiendishly funny suicide-by-dog. (For her sin, she is later reincarnated as a dog — who predictably suffers a nasty fate.)
But the fun goes out of Veronica once she loses her grip on her nihilistic depression and begins to engage in the lives Maryamma arranges for her. The more highly evolved the spiritual lesson — that all lives are connected and every deed has its consequences — the less comic imagination is shown in the writing. By the time Veronica comes face to face with Christ himself, in the person of a voluble black Woman in a Hat (Lynda Gravatt) who talks up a storm without saying much of interest, the comic invention has pretty much gone out of the play.
Sensing, perhaps, that the juice is draining out of this bird, Mann directs her actors to push the comedy — hard. Mistake. In a cast of competent pros, no one, not even Nielsen, comes off well in rant mode.
If there’s humor in Eastern mysticism, Durang clearly hasn’t found it; at least, not in the person of the humorless spiritual guide to whom he entrusts Veronica’s bumpy journey to enlightenment. Babies and dogs — now, those he gets. But we’re with Veronica when she turns on Maryamma and snarls: “If you say the word ‘lesson’ one more time, I will have to sit on your chest and hold my hand over your mouth.”