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Theatre in Review: In the Event of My Death (Stable Cable Lab Co./IRT Theater)

John Racioppo, Lisa Jill Anderson, Kara Young, Cosey Kosel, Ian Poake, and Breanna Foster. Photo: Katy Atwell.

In Lindsay Joy's new drama, a group of twentysomethings gathers for the funeral of a beloved high school classmate. If, in your mind's ear, you're hearing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," aka the theme song from The Big Chill, there's a good reason for that; in its early scenes, In the Event of My Death resembles an update of Lawrence Kasdan's film with an all-millennial cast. However, the playwright has a way of freshening up this well-worn plot with perceptive characterizations and dialogue that cuts right to the heart of a situation. She also reveals a big secret to the audience early on, using it to build suspense as we wait for the bombshell to land onstage.

Following the service for Freddy, who killed himself, everyone gathers at the home of Peter. Once the group's designated golden boy, Peter has surprised them all by staying in town (in suburban Pennsylvania), nursing his (now dead) parents and taking over his father's hardware store. Peter is also more or less dating Becky, a blonde-goddess type who, back in the day, used her much loftier position in the high-school pecking order to torment the others. (She once reportedly forced Freddy to eat dog feces in front of the cafeteria lunch crowd.) Stuck in what sounds like a dead-end job and unsure of Peter's affections -- when, in a moment of abstraction, he calls her his girlfriend, she seems almost pathetically grateful -- Becky is the odd woman out at this gathering, steeling herself for an evening with guests who can't stand her, for good reason, as even she must admit.

Also in attendance is Amber, who among them has the hardest edge and the biggest thirst for booze and drugs, and who learned of Freddy's death on Facebook and isn't at all happy about it. She is equally unhappy about seeing Conner, her ex, a self-described "millennial whisperer -- I'm the guy who figures out what you like, and I give it to you." (Currently, he is using his powers to market a craft beer.) Trevor, the group's official gay guy, harbors that big secret about Freddy, which he is loath to share -- but which he blabs to Becky. Kate and Meg are Freddy's sisters; Kate is also Peter's ex, and she rather vocally takes a dim view of his hometown lifestyle. Meg, a churchgoing Christian, is only too ready to blame the others for contributing to Freddy's death. Interestingly, Kate is black and Meg is white; the author subtly slips in a racial angle and leaves it undealt with until it is used to cut deeply in an argument between the sisters.

Joy does of sterling job of establishing the cat's cradle of rivalries, frustrated longings, and simmering resentments in which the group is enmeshed, and her radar ear for the telling line is omnipresent. The characters assault each other with scalding observations as only best friends can. Becky, frustrated that no one remembers her fondly, mutters, "I just hate the way people assume things. Like, I must have been so happy to be prom queen or whatever." Later, she asks Amber, "You didn't see me as a human?" "Nah," replies Amber. "I made you into a monster." Conner adds, helpfully, "Like a super-pretty monster, but..." letting the remark trail off. Conner, learning of Peter's career choice, dismisses him as "St. Peter of the hardware store." Meg, entering to find everyone engaged in an impromptu bit of dance, snaps, "Glad Fred's passing isn't cramping your party." Irritated by Meg's attempts at implicating everyone else in Freddy's death, Amber casually asks, "How about the time you told him that art school was a waste of time and crushed his soul?"

Thanks to Padraic Lillis' meticulously detailed direction and a fine ensemble, it's easy to believe that these characters share a long and highly fraught past. The standouts include John Racioppo's Peter, on whom maturity fits about as well as his father's suit, which he has had to don for the funeral; Lisa Jill Anderson as Amber, especially when she slips into a Molly-induced state of high emotion; Cory Kosel's Trevor, consumed with guilt behind his wisecracking-queen exterior; Kara Young as Kate, equally ready for a takedown or a necking session with Peter; and Lillith Fallon as the bitterly judgmental Meg.

Production values are on the basic side, but Doss Freel's set does make space for a living room and a porch, and the interior's old-fashioned design makes clear that Peter inhabits his parents' house. Irma Brainard's costumes show a keen appreciation of each character's personality. Katy Atwell's lighting and Andy Evan Cohen's sound design -- including an evocative pre-show playlist of Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," Britney Spears' "Toxic," and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" -- both get the job done.

There are aspects of the script that might benefit from further polishing -- it would be more dramatically satisfying if Becky's past was treated in more detail and there are other moments when one would like to know a little more about the other characters -- but In the Event of My Death is a taut, funny, and often surprisingly moving account of a funeral that becomes an autopsy for past relationships. I'm certainly looking forward to what Lindsay Joy does next. --David Barbour

(16 August 2016)

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