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Theatre in Review: Dying in Boulder (La MaMa)

Fenton Li, Jan Leslie Harding, Mallory Ann Wu. Photo: Carlos Cardona.

Dying in Boulder (or the perfect place to die if you have good karma!), as per the full title, has a bit of a karma problem -- to go along with a plot problem, a character problem, and, most of all, a credibility problem. The playwright, Linda Faigao-Hall, has taken on a challenging dramatic situation -- a deathwatch -- but, despite some intriguing touches here and there, doesn't make compelling drama of it. For all its exotic trappings -- including more than you ever wanted to know about Buddhist funeral rites -- it is, at heart, an ordinary dysfunctional family donnybrook in which the usual bill of complaints is aired.

The person dying in Boulder is Jane, a middle-aged artist afflicted with liver cancer. The plan is for her to pass on at home, where she is attended by Bayani, her spouse, a man of unearthly serenity, and Nikki, her very pregnant daughter. (Nikki's husband is on a business trip, in part because he and Jane have had prickly relations from day one.) The play begins with the arrival of Lydia, or Lyddie, Jane's sister, a film and television actress of some note -- although, now that she is in her late forties, the phone has pretty much stopped ringing. She is also surprisingly in denial about Jane -- who, the doctor insists, is likely to die within days, and is also horrified to learn that Jane, a Buddhist, has left behind instructions that include being cremated on an outdoor pyre, with half her ashes being scattered and the other half buried. Lyddie's mood doesn't improve when Bayani drags the coffin into the living room or, later, when Jane decides to try it on for size. The ultimate provocation comes when Lyddie learns she has been assigned the role of "death coordinator," a job that comes with the following instructions: "After you've washed and dried the body, dip the cotton balls with rubbing alcohol and daub every inch of her body very gently with them to close all her pores."

The problem with the plot is one that has plagued many other playwrights: Having established that a major character is dying, then what? Most of Dying in Boulder's first act is a situation comedy in which the humorless and aggrieved Lyddie is faced with one unorthodox funeral request after another from those darn Buddhists. There is, I suppose, the potential for some authentic fun here, but most of the humor feels rote, even half-hearted. Lyddie, dismissing her sister's religious practice out of hand, snaps, "She's a lapsed Episcopalian from Minnesota, for God's sake. The last time she did anything faintly Buddhist was back in the '70s when she thought Sri Chinmoy was cool." It's a line that has the form, but not the payoff, of an effective wisecrack; it also doesn't square with the Jane we see onstage. When Nikki tries to explain the funeral pyre, Lyddie snipes, "I know what a bonfire is, Nikki. You roast marshmallows in it while you're singing 'Kumbayah'." Even for television, that one isn't very good. There's also a passing joke about dharmadates.com and a mild bit of farce in which Max, the Buddhist monk who is Jane's sort-of death coach, accidentally drinks a glass of water containing Jane's morphine drops and passes out on the couch.

All this fooling around mostly delays the drama until the second act, when a cascade of revelations strips away any sympathy one may have had for Jane and Lyddie. Previously, in a flashback, we've seen Jane beg her sister for $20,000 to finance a folk treatment for her illness, consisting of bee venom in cactus juice. This is an interesting dilemma: Does Lyddie, who appears to be cash-strapped, nevertheless finance what is almost certainly a quack remedy? Or does she decline, and thereby separate Jane from her last shred of hope? It is treated cursorily, however, as the playwright shifts her attention, detailing a series of bullet points that include Jane's substance abuse problems, her toxically bad mothering, Jane and Lyddie's simmering rivalry, their parents' terrible marriage, and who did (or didn't) take responsibility for Mom and Dad when they declined. It all comes out too late for any real explanation, leaving Jane and Lyddie trapped in an unbecoming catfight.

The play keeps insisting on certain things, without offering much evidence. This is especially true of Nikki, who is supposed to be so devoted to Jane that even her marriage comes second. The script paints Jane as both a devoted Buddhist and a hellion in ways that don't fully track; it's hard to believe that she spent years running amok while in the company of the almost eerily detached Bayani. And Jane and Lyddie seem to exist mostly to carp at each other; was there ever a time when they shared a bond?

Ian Morgan's direction does its best to smooth over the script's less-credible aspects, but neither Jan Leslie Harding nor Bernadette Quigley, as Lyddie and Jane, respectively, manages a compelling character. As Bayani and Nikki, Fenton Li and Mallory Ann Wu wrestle with underwritten characters. Michael Rabe makes a solid impression as Max, especially when amusingly trying to tutor Lyddie in the Buddhist way of death, but drops out of the action all too quickly.

The production looks attractive, thanks to the set by Yu-Hsuan Chen, which takes in the living room and bedroom of Bayani and Jane's house. It has many telling touches, including the female nudes Jane has been working on; however, placing the family rock garden in front of the house set causes many scenes to be played far upstage, at some remove from the audience. Jennifer Hill's carefully wrought lighting design is at its most effective when highlighting the sculptures in the garden. Raven Ong's character-observant costumes and Fabian Obispo's sound design are both solid contributions.

But for all that the characters litigate the past, they don't really achieve the spiritual cleansing that Jane seeks, nor does Dying in Boulder ever make her situation seem to matter. A lot gets said, but not enough to reveal these characters and their complicated history; the play also does Budhhism no favors by playing its tenets largely for laughs. "Death's awesome! Dying's cool!" Max says. He needs to get out of Boulder more often. -- David Barbour

(11 March 2019)

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