I don’t have the depth to feel this bad,” Marlo Thomas quips early in the climactic part of this new Elaine May trilogy of one-acts. It’s among the wittier lines here, but at evening’s end it echoes like dreadful self-judgment. “Moving Right Along” is indeed rather depthless, and mostly pretty bad. This Magic Theater premiere is as short on directorial craft as it is on scripted substance.
The first one-act is not May’s, but Czech author Jan Mirochek’s “Killing Trotsky.” Written and set in 1993, it finds playwright Max (film/TV director and occasional thesp Mark Rydell) having completed his latest gloomy epic. When producer Otto (Reed Martin) is less than ecstatic about the work, Max is less than polite.Fed up at humoring this unappreciative, proudly noncommercial scold, Otto walks out for good, soon followed by Max’s long-suffering g.f. Anna (Julia Brothers). In despair, Max decides to commit suicide. But his desire to stage the perfect, tragic exit goes absurdly awry, requiring rescue by landlady Mrs. Hager (Wanda McCaddon).
The rather dated joke here is that in the brave new post-Velvet Revolution world, Max’s time-tested brand of existential miserabilism is no longer appreciated as a bold cry against oppression — now it’s just boring art and bad commerce.
Though Herbert Kotik’s translation comes off stilted (something that might have been offset if the actors attempted Czech accents), the 35-minute piece is still a potential comic tour-de-force. Unfortunately, neither May’s listless direction or Rydell’s pedestrian turn are up to that challenge.
After an awkward scene change, Rydell returns to no greater effect in May’s “On the Way,” directed by her daughter, Jeannie Berlin. This time he’s George, a wealthy New Yorker en route to catch a plane to Aspen, in a hired car driven by young Freddie (Daveed Diggs). Freddie is an easygoing former child emigre from the Dominican Republic. Overhearing something George says on his cell, Freddie has a question: “Was Hitler a real person?”
This might reasonably be expected to kick off a penetrating dialogue about history, ignorance, education, the generation gap, any number of things. Instead the duo meanderingly discuss what they have in common, both being Republicans. Don’t-worry-be-happy type Freddy drops a few more jaw-breakers (he assumes the elder passenger’s parents must have arrived in the U.S. “when there were only Indians”), and the short, trivial scene ends on a wan note of cuteness.
“Way” is a prelude to the post-intermission “George Is Dead,” written and directed by May.
Bedraggled and half-asleep after a fight with her husband (who stormed out), Carla (Brothers) is roused at midnight by a hysterical Doreen (Thomas), with whom she shared a most unequal childhood — Carla’s harried mother was Doreen’s devoted nanny.
The uninvited guest announces that her husband has been killed in an avalanche while skiing. Reverting to the status quo of 40 years earlier, this designer-clad ninny simply shows up expecting to be taken care of. Fed, reassured, given the only bed and TV, allowed to babble on in frequently insulting ways, it’s soon clear Carla will have to make the funeral arrangements for a man she’s never met.
May gives Thomas some good lines, and the gone-blonde thesp has fun doing a latter-day Billie Burke act of spoiled, ditzy, jabbering thoughtlessness. But as written and played, the part is pretty much farcical. Brothers’ Julia, on the other hand, is a complicatedly unhappy woman well-played for real-world pain. There’s a fundamental tonal disconnect here that director May does little to address. Ending on a stark note whose bitterness feels unearned, “George Is Dead” has funny and pointed moments, but still seems underdeveloped.
Billed in consummately vague terms as “three short plays about life and death,” “Moving Right Along” finds no method to link its panels, let alone lend them shared thematic urgency. Design contributions are, in fact, a notch below the usual Magic standard.