A campy musical about death – what could go wrong?
Chris Tanner's The Etiquette of Death stars Mr. Tanner as an battleaxe of a beauty entrepreneur smartly named Joan Girdler, along with a fine Brandon Olson as her fatally ill son Joey and none other than Everett Quinton himself as a vainglorious Death. Steven Hammel's sparkling set hosts athletic staging, energetic production numbers, dramatic deaths, and a lot more; marking the close of LaMama's historic 50th season, the show has many problems, but lack of ambition is not one of them.
Probably the most fundamental fault is too-many-cooks syndrome. To put together this meditation on death Mr. Tanner solicited contributions from a whole raft of writers and has ended up with a production that's half narrative and half collage, two strands which, not surprisingly, never cohere. The program credits no fewer than four people with dramaturgy; that in itself should tell you something.
If the show stuck with the variety-show format suggested by its opening scenes, it might have had a chance (though the weak material around the first "guest" wouldn't in itself be promising). Instead, the dominant story – of Joey's slow decline and death while Joan dithers and attempts to circumvent her own doom – lurches onward in spasms of awkward storytelling and mostly ineffective humor. Some sharply conceived songs and song fragments focus the energy but only for moments; Julie Atlas Muz choreographs the flouncy but often inexplicable production numbers with intermittent humor and sensitivity but in a lost cause.
Imagine one of John Waters's early wacko pictures minus the bullheaded imaginative focus of one bent genius; imagine a production of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company without the guiding hand; imagine The Rocky Horror Picture Show with better songs and (in some cases) better acting, but no narrative flow to give them a pulse. There were some amplification problems at the performance I saw, but where such things usually annoy and distract, here they hardly even bothered me, seeming simply part of the overall chaos.