All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Harvey Spiegelgass does not exist. He is an amalgam of playwrights like Harvey Perr, Leonard Spiegelgass, and other who peppered Broadway of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras with situation comedies that were rife with gag lines and aimed for laughs with an occasional tug at the heart.
These slice-of-life plays are pleasant enough. Some hold up, but most are relics to a time before television comedies equaled or surpassed most of what was written for the stage. Thank Norman Lear and Grant Tinker for that.
Bluestein is a throw-back. His play, “Rest, In Pieces,” really three related one-acts about survivors dealing with loss and each other after a death, has the tummeling qualities of the late ’50s. Punch lines, even more than comedy, seem the objective, and many of them seem forced. Everything is a set-up to try to get a laugh, usually from acrimony that prompts one character to give flippant answers to another character. There are soft moments, and director Bud Martin and his top-notch cast at Delaware Theatre Company try to keep matters on a human scale, but Bluestein often sabotages their efforts by preferring the big effect over the simple and everyday.
Each section of “Rest, In Pieces” begins with its three characters standing in square of light, meant to represent a cemetery plot, on a darkened stage. The characters are a mother, father, and son. In each of the three playlets, one of them has passed away and the others are left to mourn.
No matter which survivors we see, Bluestein’s script covers well-trod ground. Little happens that has not been in a previous Harvey Spiegelgass play.
That doesn’t always matter. A good story is a good story in spite of how often it’s told. The problem with “Rest, In Pieces” is it doesn’t have the refined sensibility or poignant glimpse at ordinary life to make it compelling. Donna Pescow, Lenny Wolpe, and Frank Vlastnik are adept at establishing their characters and tossing off Bluestein’s one-liners and comebacks. The quality in acting and directing unfortunately does not translate to the writing or the overall entertainment level of Bluestein’s play. Some scenes, that I imagine Bluestein considers tough and realistic, are just harsh. The argument between mother and son in the first act cannot muster the texture of similar passages from, say, “The Glass Menagerie” and smacks more of playcrafting and audience manipulation than it does art.
Donna Pescow, in particular, works lots of magic to try to pull this scene from a fierce fire, but even her skill can’t elevate it from irritating to amusing.
There’s another problem. A lot of Bluestein’s gags and jokes are funny on the surface, but they seem mean and misplaced in context. The anger and alienation Vlastnik’s son, named Steve, shows toward his mother are too high-pitched. Steve seems like a man on the attack rather than an adult who felt neglected by his mother during his childhood and wants, rather inconsiderately, to address the matter during the interval between his father’s, his mother’s husband’s, burial and shiva.
Steve has no taste. He’s sulky and belligerent from the start. There’ no indication beyond plain exposition that we’re watching two people who just shared a common loss. Bluestein is too interested in the contrived drama of a mother and son deeply at odds, and goes right to it.
Yes, the mother, Leona, is a nag who wants to feed Steve beyond his appetite and admonish him for being untidy, as if he was age six, but she doesn’t deserve the undisguised contempt Vlastnik’s character unleashes. At least not until Bluestein can sidle into fights and fireworks after letting his audience relax in Leona’s milieu for eight or so beats.
Steve is a comedy writer, and among other things, he is set off because his mother doesn’t get his jokes or enjoy the barbed nature of some of the cracks he aims at her. Steve’s tone is not one of joshing or stringing his mother along. It’s laced with arsenic and seems accusatory and meant to wound.
Bluestein makes the battle too one-sided. You witness Steve’s agitation before Leona has the chance to cause it or deserve such cold and scornful treatment. Vlastnik is so intense as Steve, sympathy immediately tilts towards Leona, who might be able to give as good as she gets and might warrant some pent-up rebuke but who seems to be the victim of her son’s fury at a distasteful, ill-chosen time for such a torrent of anger.
Steve’s words amount to cruelty. They don’t account for a woman having lost her husband. They show no respect for the occasion for the person who is being attacked. Even if the 38-year-old has kept his emotions towards his mother bottled up for decades, Steve’s attack on Leona seems inappropriate and unreal.
Being a comedy writer, the head writer on a successful sitcom, Steve tries to temper his assault with humor, but Bluestein’s jokes are labored and don’t register as funny. The lines aren’t bad as much as misplaced and clumsily constructed. Bluestein lacks the finesse of Harvey Spiegelgass or the timing of “Modern Family” or “The Big Bang Theory.” Vlastnik exacerbates the situation with tough readings that make Steve an unsavory, unwelcome character. You wouldn’t blame Leona for asking him to leave and telling shiva visitors he was hastily called back to L.A.
The actor is being true to his part, but Vlastnik is so rough, he seems unrefined or undomesticated. It’s as if nobody raised him, and he became an angry adult with a paradoxical knack for grinding out one-liners.
The second act softens considerably. Leona is the deceased, and Steve is with his father, Ben, with whom he has a better relationship.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone who could not like Lenny Wolpe’s Ben, a man whose humor is more subtle and appropriate than his son’s but who recognizes and shows appreciation for a clever gag line when he hears it.
In this scene, Leona’s funeral has passed, and Steve comes from L.A. to do a check-up visit to his widowed father.
You can see the warmth in the relationship and that Ben was the parent to whom Steve could turn when he wasn’t getting the emotional support he wanted from Leona.
This is the tenderest part of “Rest, in Pieces” and contains moments of nostalgic reminiscence and congenial conversation that indicates a good relationship between father and son.
Steve, though, cannot let go his anger towards Leona, and this irks Ben, who loved his wife and who found happiness with her Steve obviously could not. Another wrinkle is Ben’s dating. Leona has been dead for about four months, and Steve is upset that his father is having dinner and going to movies with another woman, a close friend of Leona’s.
Every young widower and child of a young widower is aware of what Jewish people call “the casserole brigade,” widowed or unmarried women who come to feed the now eligible man and keep him company they would like to make permanent. I know one woman who flew from Philadelphia to Boca Raton the second she read the obit of a woman whose widowed husband she wanted as her own.
Bluestein, for once, plots better than just having Ben barraged by candidates to be his second wife. The woman he is seeing was carefully chosen, and the liaison makes Ben happy. The discussion between Ben and Steve is yet annoying because, again, the son doesn’t know how to give ground or see a matter from someone else’s perspective. How he became a writer with that failing I’ll never know!
Wolpe’s Ben is a calm, relatively happy, down-to-earth man who can tolerate some of his son’s disrespect to Leona and to his wishes to proceed with his life as a man and not just as a widower. Wolpe provides a deep and endearing portrayal that, again, places Vlastnik’s Steve in a harsh light. This son seems too miserable to consider his parents’ feelings, let alone cope with them.
Steve’s rancor sours what could have been an affecting scene. You want him to go home to L.A. and leave Ben to his own devices. You at least want him to shut up long enough for Ben to finish simple tasks like putting clothes in the washing machine or going on the washroom, both of which Steve prevents his father from doing.
Steve’s attitude also keeps the second act of “Rest, in Pieces” from hurdling over its handicap of seen-it-before-and-often cliché and renders it “old hat,” so you never get involved or engrossed in the situation and watch it blandly the way you would a mediocre television show.
The last act of “Rest, in Pieces” is the most telling and borders on the poignant storytelling Bluestein most likely had in mind for his plays.
In this scene, Leona and Ben return to their Brooklyn apartment after being in L.A. to bury Steve, who died suddenly of a heart attack. As Leona notes, between Steve’s smoking and anger, his death was not a total surprise.
Watching how the two parents commune, and seeing the more dimensional Pescow and Wolpe in action, is enlightening. You can see the two are close but don’t have the rosiest of marriages. For all the love, there’s a lot of bickering, a lot of recrimination, and lot of regret.
This is the stuff of drama, a lot of dramas, but in Pescow and Wolpe’s hands, you don’t mind the familiarity of the plot. The actors lend it originality in their approach to their characters.
As in the first scene, Leona makes someone she loves testy. She is not as intense as Steve, but she is a woman who doesn’t easily let things go, and it’s natural to talk about motherhood and the disappointment she was in that department to her son.
Ben tries to be appeasing and quietly mournful but, in time, you see the friction that is a constant part of his marriage to Leona. You see why they have spent many an evening going to a nearby deli for lox and eggs, their version of a peace conference where tempers cool and affection renews.
Bluestein offers a good compact study of a marriage, and Pescow and Wolpe seem to know the territory and their characters’ place in it well. The scene is not exactly a masterpiece, but it provides a better example of the Harvey Spiegelgass school of writing and shows why the comedies of the late ’50s and early ’60s were popular enough to attract audiences.
Donna Pescow supplies energy and realism to Martin’s production. You believe her Leona, faults and all. Pescow is so natural, you can forgive Leona far quicker and far more charitably than Vlastnik’s Steve can. The actress is command of her lines and her role and does a fine job at both entertaining and building a complex character.
Lenny Wolpe exudes heart. His Ben is the Jewish father who pinches your cheek and gets an affectionate kiss in return. He shows the cares of Ben’s life leavened by humor and a wry perspective. Wolpe’s Ben can be as realistic as Pescow’s Leona but also has a sense of proportion and knows things get solved by putting one foot ahead of the other and moving forward rather than by agonizing or bewailing one’s fate.
Frank Vlastnik does all he’s asked to do as Steve. The character is troubled and harsh. If Steve is often annoying, Vlastnik rates congratulations for accurately portraying the sarcastic nudnik Bluestein created.
Bud Martin keeps all moving briskly and certainly concentrates on any dramatic tension with which Bluestein gives him to work. It is not the director’s fault if the material is not up to the level of the performances or the staging.
Dirk Durossette, a busy guy these days, fashioned a recognizable Brooklyn living room and eating area. You can move into Leona and Ben’s home as is and want for nothing. Meredith Boring’s costume were right for the characters.
“Rest, In Pieces” runs through Sunday, November 23, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or by visiting www.delawaretheatre.org.