Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Comedy of Refusing to Age Gracefully

Start with the obvious. Nobody is getting any younger. While a person's attitude toward life can have a positive impact on how they react to daily events, no one has ever beaten the system. Cells die. Pets die. Parents die. Friends die. Lovers die. Hope dies. Eventually, we all die.

And yet, during the great in-between that starts with birth and ends with death, there is room for plenty of mirth. Laughter can have surprisingly curative powers. When a person laughs so hard that tears fall from his eyes and he thinks he's about to pass out, the chances are pretty good that he's getting a brief but intense aerobic workout. Whether laughter is derived from someone getting a pie thrown in his face or an excruciatingly bad pun is not important. Tickling the funny bone is a valuable survival skill.

The darkest kind of humor often involves people battling diseases that make them confront their mortality.
  • At my grandfather's funeral, the rabbi (who had never met Grandpa when he was alive) turned to my grandmother and asked how she liked his eulogy. Never one to miss an opportunity for a grand putdown, Grandma replied "It's not going to make him warm again!"
  • Following my mother's hysterectomy, she was taken to a semi-private room to recuperate. The woman in the next bed was a small business owner suffering from post-operative gas. After one especially painful moment, Henrietta bellowed "My competitor should only feel like this!"
  • I used to joke that one of the benefits of dying was that I'd no longer have to worry about doing the laundry. Then I found a laundry service that I liked. (Bah-dum-bum!)
Scott Dikkers (co-founder of The Onion) notes that:
"There’s a lot of satire, maybe not now, but certainly in history, that was very dark and almost misanthropic, pointing out the serious human foibles, and it can get really preachy and annoying. The best satire is the stuff that’s really, really funny, just makes you bust a gut laughing. You’re getting an interesting opinion but you’re getting it through the vehicle of a hardy, hardy laugh. Laughter is a healing thing, we all need it. It helps us cope with tragedy."

* * * * * * * * *
As people age, what they put into their bodies changes.
Dan (James Roday) and Bob (Danny Glover) compare
their medications in a scene from Pushing Dead

The protagonist of Tom E. Brown's new comedy, Pushing Dead (which will be screened at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival), is a middle-aged gay man who has been HIV positive for 22 years. In addition to living on a limited income and fending off telemarketing calls pitching a viatical settlement for his health insurance policy, Dan (James Roday) is still uncomfortable divulging his HIV status to people he meets. Although he has been able to navigate the formidable bureaucracy of healthcare management, the slightest snafu can send him into a tailspin.

In the true spirit of "No good deed goes unpunished," Dan receives a $100 check as a birthday gift from his mother. Without realizing the consequences, he thanks his mother and deposits the check using an ATM. Several days later, when he goes to the pharmacy to pick up his prescription refills, he learns that because his bank account went $70 over the limit which allowed him to receive medications at an especially low, state-subsidized rate), he must now pay several thousand dollars in order to get his next batch of life-saving drugs.

James Roday is Dan Schauble in Pushing Death

What follows is the bittersweet equivalent of watching a human being caught in a pinball machine as Dan ricochets between his pharmacy, a new social worker, and back again. Meanwhile, his boss at the nightclub where Dan works a bouncer who also emcees poetry slams has had another argument with his wife (Khandi Alexander), and been kicked out of their apartment. With Bob (Danny Glover) resisting Dan's invitation to come stay with him and his roommate, Paula (Robin Weigert) at their apartment -- not to mention the increased stress that comes from being seriously addicted to coffee --  Dan's an emotional wreck.
  • Getting mugged by a man who hits him after Dan has handed over his money doesn't help. 
  • Nor does the painful onset of symptoms indicating a possible kidney stone
  • Add in the ominous appearances of a creepy little girl (Tabitha Paigen) who seems to be haunting Dan as if he had become trapped in a horror film.  
  • Balance that with Paula's fears about getting mugged after having been pelted with D-cell batteries (or being haunted by the stuffed white toy monkey Dan gave her as a gift).
  • Finally, there is Mike (Tom Riley), the handsome, mysterious British painter with a dark beard and bleached blond hair who keeps crossing Dan's path in a park, on the sidewalk, and at a free clinic with a reputation for helping low-income patients with HIV.
Tom Riley as Mike in Pushing Dead

Pushing Dead will have obvious appeal to San Francisco audiences (where it was filmed) although the older generations of technology on display in ATMs, home phones, cash registers and other devices make it clear that living on a diminished income often means going without the latest electronic toys. Tom E. Brown's film benefits immensely from its likeable cast. The filmmaker's willingness to mine comic gold from what many would consider a much too depressing situation is admirable (some scenes will undoubtedly resonate more with people who are living with HIV).

* * * * * * * * *
Heading into the deeper, darker waters of confronting one's mortality, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre recently presented the West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl's new play, For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday (which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville). Although For Peter Pan... received a lot of acclaim at its world premiere, I was severely underwhelmed by what I experienced on opening night. But, in all honesty, by a certain age a person has experienced numerous disappointing climaxes.

John (Charles Shaw Robinson), Captain Hook (David Chandler), and
Michael (Keith Reddin) sit on their childhood bed in a scene from in
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Despite the work of director Les Waters, it takes a lot to kick this 90-minute play into motion. Its three scenes deal with (a) death, (b) a family's reaction to death, and (c) one character's ability to rise above death. What makes the situation unique is that the family onstage has had a long and beloved history in literature, having been created by none other than J.M. Barrie.

While most people are aware that Barrie was inspired to write Peter Pan as a result of his close friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her five boys, few know what happened to her children after they reached adulthood.
Kathleen Chalfant stars as Ann in Sara Ruhl's new play,
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Those familiar with the story of Peter Pan (in its musical and non-musical forms) know that the titular character is a young boy who refuses to grow up. On the night when Peter visited the Darling family while searching for his shadow, he managed to entice John, Michael, and Wendy to join him on his return flight from London to Neverland. Even as the family's beloved Saint Bernard (Nana) tried to warn the children's parents that trouble was afoot, the windows to their bedroom flew open as they headed for "the second star to the right, and straight on till morning."

For Peter Pan... begins as Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) appears in front of the curtain holding a playbill from when she starred in a local production of Peter Pan. After describing how she once met Mary Martin -- and how much she enjoyed a minor career in the theatre -- the curtain rises to reveal the Darling family gathered around the hospital bed in which their patriarch, George (Ron Crawford), is dying.

With limited staff on call at the hospital, the two Darling children who became doctors -- John (Charles Shaw Robinson) and Michael (Keith Reddin) are perfectly capable of explaining exactly where their father is in the process of dying. Wendy (Ellen McLaughlin) and her husband, Jim (David Chandler), feel rather helpless as they all wait for the old man's death rattle.

The Darling family has a drink to toast their deceased patriarch in
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

After they return to their father's home, the family spends time sharing old jokes, commiserating about past family events, and wondering what comes next. Surprises come slowly but surely as George's ghost enters the room with Nana on a leash and sends a "sign" to his children that he's doing just fine in the afterlife.

When the scenery again changes, George's adult children are back in their childhood bedroom, sitting on the beds from which they departed for Neverland. As they reminisce about their adventure, Ann dons her costume as Peter Pan, sprinkles some fairy dust, and up they go. Sadly, they don't seem able to stay in the air for very long. That's because they have all grown up and become adults.

Wendy has arthritis and one of her brothers still has papers to grade for his students. Ann remains in mid-air, older, wiser, and secure in the knowledge that by staying in the theatre a while longer she can continue to be anyone she wishes.

Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) and her father (Ron Crawford) in a scene
from For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Credit goes to set designer Annie Smart, sound designer Bray Poor, lighting designer Matthew Frey, and ZFX Incorporated (for handling the flying effects). While Daniel Chandler had some nice moments as Captain Hook trying to do battle with a geriatric Peter Pan, Kathleen Chalfant was unable to breathe enough oxygen into For Peter Pan... to make Sarah Ruhl's tepid drama fly.

Captain Hook (David Chandler) duels with Michael (Keith Reddin) in a scene
from For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday continue through July 3rd at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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