Don’t be taken in by the alluring advertising art for Death Takes A Holiday, now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre. By the looks of it—a beautiful couple dressed to the nines and elegantly waltzing on air (literally)—you could be forgiven for expecting that you are about the see a classic romantic musical comedy à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
If you do have Fred and Ginger on your mind when you take your seat, however, you will soon be dispelled of that notion. Death Takes A Holiday is romantic the way that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is romantic, and it is a comedy the way that Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well is a comedy. Both terms, “romantic” and “comedy,” tap into their older meanings rather than the ones we’ve come to know from watching those charming movies of a bygone era. Expect something other than smiles and sighs.
Come to think of it, pretty much everything about Death Takes A Holiday takes on multiple meanings, and unless you parse the words and enjoy a certain bitter irony, you may end up confused and disappointed. Even the term “holiday” (Philip Barry wrote a light and airy play with that title; perhaps you remember the film with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn) here means nothing more than a short suspension of business-as-usual, an interlude, like a bank holiday in which debts are not forgiven, just briefly uncollected.
Adapted by Thomas Meehan and the late Peter Stone from a 1924 Italian play by Alberto Casella, and filled with soaring music and unfortunately moribund lyrics by Maury Yeston, Death Takes A Holiday is mostly about what takes place during that interlude.
Death has decided to suspend his normal routine of collecting souls in order to adopt the persona of a Russian prince so that he may satisfy his curiosity about what it feels like to be human. (If this sounds a tad familiar, perhaps you have seen the movie Meet Joe Black, yet another version of Casella’s play, starring Brad Pitt in the central role).
During the course of the play, in which “Prince Nikolai” joins the family of Duke Vittorio Lamberti at their villa, Death learns paradoxically to embrace both life and the duke’s lovely daughter Grazia. For her part, Grazia is totally smitten and immediately breaks off her engagement in order to take up with the interloper. Only the duke knows of his guest’s true identity, and he is sworn to secrecy—though, at least in this version, secrets and promises are quickly and easily set aside by both the quick and the dead whenever it suits them.
Actually, this is not the first time Death has come calling. The family is still mourning the loss of Grazia’s brother Roberto, a World War I fighter pilot who was killed when his plane was shot down. The few truly poignant moments in Death Takes A Holiday are those in which Roberto’s mother (the ever wonderful Rebecca Luker, here given too few opportunities to shine) and Roberto’s pal Major Eric Fenton (well played by Matt Cavenaugh), sing separate numbers about him. In “Losing Roberto,” his mother, the duchess, steps into his bedroom and sings of her loss and grief, and in “Roberto’s Eyes,” the one number that made me sit up and take notice, Eric sings of seeing death reflected in Roberto’s eyes just as his plane went down.
For me at least, this is where the musical falls apart. There is nothing romantic about Roberto’s death and the obvious pain it has caused; to have another death waiting in the wings is just too much weight for this musical to carry.
As the pair of oddly matched lovers, Jill Paice as Grazia and Julian Ovenden as “Prince Nikolai,” give strong performances and sing beautifully. But all in all, there are just too many elements that simply do not work, including a plot that does not know what to do with this most strange and altogether disturbing of stories. In the end, any remaining shred of hope—has death learned nothing?—is dashed; the clock strikes midnight and the “holiday” is over.
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Another play in which Death hovers over the proceedings is the two-hander, Tryst, playing at the Irish Rep. Playwright Karoline Leach, in her first full-length outing, has given us a piece that draws from George Bernard Shaw, along with perhaps a dash of August Strindberg and any number of period melodramas (the play takes place in 1910 in London and at a seaside resort town).
Mark Shanahan plays a con man who calls himself “George Love,” a sort of Harold Hill without the musical instruments. It is George’s mission in life to woo spinster women, pretend to wed them, give them one night of connubial bliss, and then abscond with their money.
When George sets his sights on Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella), a shy, timid, and self-effacing hat maker, you watch as the two of them play off each other. It isn’t long before both Adelaide and George start to show they have unexpected depths, and, in the course of things, she softens him up, while he gives her some confidence in herself.
Predictable enough, and perhaps there might have been a sufficiency of charm on display to end the play right there.
However, the playwright has rather more to say, and so, after Adelaide has figured out exactly what George has been up to, she turns into one of Shaw’s highly independent modern women and decides that they should stay together—married or not—and set up shop, where she can manage the business and he can charm the lady customers. Ending Number Two, perhaps.
But, no. There’s more. The pair continues to circle one another, dark secrets come to the fore, and it becomes evident that neither really has the upper hand (think of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, with the seesawing power struggle that spins out of control).
Shanahan and Maulella do their best with the material, but the problem is the obvious one. The playwright is neither Shaw nor Strindberg, and ultimately, it is the tone of melodrama that wins out. In the end, the lesson is: never trust a sociopath.
And Death once again takes the final bow.
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