Downstairs, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
66 East Fourth St.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 17, $25-$30
When it comes time to meet your maker, a fine spot would be a place like Yu-Hsuan Chen’s lovely, welcoming set for the otherwise mundane Dying in Boulder, which is having its world premiere through March 17 at La MaMa Downstairs. Just a few feet from the seats are a rock garden consisting of three circles of cairns and sand, a wooden bench, a bedroom partially hidden by curtains, and an open sun room with a couch, chairs, a table, and a trio of spare, large-scale oil paintings of nude middle-aged women. It’s hard to resist the urge to sit on the bench or meditate among the stacked stones (but don’t, of course). However, the narrative doesn’t live up to the design. Written by Filipino American Linda Faigao-Hall, who was inspired by her involvement as a caretaker for her sister-in-law, Dying in Boulder is a fairly standard work about death and aging.
It’s the spring of 2001, and Jane (Bernadette Quigley) has chosen to die in Boulder, with the support of her husband, Tai chi teacher Bayani (Fenton Li); their pregnant daughter, Nikki (Mallory Ann Wu), who is waiting for her husband to arrive; and crunchy local monk Max (Michael Rabe). Jane has prepared several binders that detail the Buddhist rituals she wants, outlining specific chores for relatives and friends. Her sister, Lydia (Jan Leslie Harding), a successful television and movie actress going through a rough patch, arrives only to find out that Jane has made her the DC, the death coordinator, a role that includes some extremely detailed and difficult responsibilities that Lydia sees as punishment. Lydia also doesn’t understand how everyone can be so resigned to her sister’s condition, seemingly acting like it’s no big deal. As Jane’s time approaches, she and Lydia finally face issues that have been tearing at each of them for years, threatening Jane’s peaceful departure into the great unknown.
The play — which is subtitled “the perfect place to die if you have good karma!” — is as much about sisters as it is death, but neither Jane nor Lydia is a compelling character. Lydia is too shrill and disbelieving, while Jane is overly woo-woo. The story works significantly better when it focuses on the cheerful Bayani, sweetly played by Li, and the concerned Nikki, who is portrayed nicely by Wu; the likable Rabe, the son of David Rabe and Jill Clayburgh (and brother of Lily Rabe), is not given enough to do as Max, particularly in the second act. All three add needed humor, while Jen Hill’s lighting emits a gentle mystery. Director Ian Morgan (The Accomplices, Faigao-Hall’s Sparrow) is unable to grab hold of any significant conflict to drive the story until it’s too late; it would have benefited by being trimmed from two acts and two hours to about eighty minutes without intermission. “Death is a great adventure,” Nikki says at the beginning of Dying in Boulder. That might be the case, but you can’t tell from this overbaked melodrama.
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