Legally Dead by Dan Hunter
In June 2011 when Dan Hunter's play Legally Dead had its first reading it was a serious drama. Almost 2 years and 22 or perhaps 23 drafts later (the author himself was not even sure of the number) the play has developed into a comedy. The playwright explains that this is what he discovered the play was apparently meant to be in the first place. This discovery could have put the project on the right path if the author did not take things to such extremes in an attempt to make sure the play would be humorous. The play doesn't know if it should be a dark humor piece or a farce so it ends up being neither. The humor is dark but not dark or interesting enough, and it doesn't have the lightness and sparkle to be farce.
The play would have been better served if the author had taken a lighter hand when he developed the humor. There is not much subtlety here. The quips and zingers come at you fast and furious without letup or real pacing. This would not be as much of a problem perhaps if the jokes were not so one-note and in the same few veins. They get very tired very quickly.
But then what can be expected when the characters are all crafted in a way that makes them very one-dimensional. Each character seems to have his or her few specific odd traits, which Hunter pushes to the limit. We have the alcoholic doddering mother Marsha (Kippy Goldfarb) with her various bottles stashed in all sorts of cracks and crevices in the home and even on her person, the germ-phobic Jesus-loving younger daughter Rebecca (Jen Alison Lewis), high-strung elder daughter Annie (Adrianne Krstansky) a lawyer with high gambling debts pursued by criminals and the recently released ex-con son Tommy (Christopher James Webb) who wants to take over the family business. These are 4 of the 5 members of the Lincoln family.
Missing is the patriarch of the family, who disappeared 5 years prior we discover into the play. It is interesting to have the play center on a character who is MIA, not present but talked about. But surprisingly not much is really made of the father's mysterious disappearance. And no one seems particularly concerned or affected by his absence. Only the younger daughter Rebecca seems to maintain any hope that he may still be alive, but then there is no speculation why he left and why he would stay away. Filial love, as well as marital bliss between the parents come quickly into doubt. It becomes clear very soon what the different possibilities are for what may have happened to the father.
This is quite a disfunctional family, one of the most I have seen in a while, and in that the author does succeed. I was not sure if this dysfunctionality was the cause or effect of the father being missing. Nothing really is explained or occurs with any sort of logic. This is exemplified perhaps by what happens at the very beginning when the younger daughter ends up killing her mother's incontinent dog when washing him and then vacuuming him, and then tries to hide the body from the mother and other members of the family. More is made of the missing dog in fact than one imagines was ever made of the missing father.
Much of the story and its zany over the top characters come from Hunter's life. He also is from the mid-west as are the family at the core of the story, the Lincolns, who have a prosperous car business that sells models by the namesake manufacturer Lincoln naturally.
The play is set on Christmas Eve, with Marsha looking forward to a reunion with all three of her children. This will in fact be the first time they are all together since brother Tommy hired a hit man to kill them, why we can only guess, and only Annie harbors any fear or ill-will for his past actions. But then Annie is dead-set to have her family sign a document she has drawn up to have the MIA father declared legally dead. This is perhaps about time, and it would allow the family’s assets to be unfrozen and their car dealership to be sold. Though a smart lawyer, Annie has some serious gambling and drinking problems, and now owes some very bad men a lot of money. But then getting anyone in the family to agree to anything is a futile exercise, and everyone has their own agenda though some deal-making is attempted. Money seems ultimately the common bond in the family and everyone is desperately trying to find the will to prove their claim to the family fortune. But then what will turn up first, the body of Marsha's beloved pooch or the father's will?
The play's running time is 100 minutes and there is no intermission. This is a piece that would have benefited from a short break. Since there are several mysteries here to sort out and myriad of family secrets to be revealed, it would have been quite suitable to have a cliff-hanger of sorts leading into an intermission before things were revealed or discovered in the second act.
Much was probably expected from this new play by Hunter, who had received acclaim with his play RED ELM, also produced at the BPT. Unfortunately the promise does not get delivered here, and perhaps yet another draft is called for. Still the very capable team of actors and director Steven Bogart do their best with the material given them. Probably the star of the production is the set designed by Christina Todesco; it is a wonderfully kitchy electric blue kitchen with all sorts of garish Christmas decorations including a life-sized Santa’s sleigh pulled appropriately enough by pink flamingos in flight above.
The Boston Playwrights Theatre production of Dan Hunter’s “Legally Dead.” Directed by Steven Bogart. At the Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. http://www.bu.edu/bpt/