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.
It doesn’t help that the singing ranges from very good to pretty bad, or that the best scene, a long, sharp-witted, and funny one featuring one woman drawling boredly on about death while her companion simply eats and nods, centers on characters who have nothing to do with the main story.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen a show that engages LaMama’s reputation for experimentation and falls on its face, and I expect it won’t be the last. But two things I’ll give The Etiquette of Death: it didn’t anger me the way bad theater on a large scale usually does, since the camp and the drag and the earnestly over-the-top musical numbers kept me watching; nor did it bore me, instead keeping me hanging on the big question of whether the next scene would be ill-conceived or ill-played.
There are nuggets of possibility here, in some of the songs and a few of the conceits, but what’s on stage now feels like a very preliminary first draft in which the extraneous flights of fancy have been left indiscriminately intact while worthy elements have been left unidentified and unshaped.
The Etiquette of Death runs through July 1 at La Mama.
Photo: Chris Tanner as Joan Girdler (standing) and Everett Quinton as Death (sitting) in the World Premiere of The Etiquette of Death. Photo by Ves Pitts.