is a rose. by Alan Scherstuhl
"Yes," said S.O.L.'s sweeter, older friend. "And she's cute, too."
Mays is kind of adorable, and she seems to make sense of a thin scrap of character. Her Arlene is the unpaid assistant of the titular Rose (Donna Thomason, dominant even while wearing drapes), a writer who for five years has mourned her late husband, Walsh, and not written a word. Worse still, the dead man pads about the house, maybe a ghost or maybe Rose's imagination, talking to her like he's pitching jokes to Milton Berle.
Rose: "Do you remember being alive?"
Walsh: "The food was better."
It's like bread to pigeons, these gentle Simon gags, and pigeons don't care about staleness. Or that a young character called Gavin is identified as a tough-guy crime novelist but says "I know when I'm licked" and seems to shop at Target. As Gavin, Brian Paulette may not look the part, but he's a natural at the clash of classes Simon calls for. When Rose invites him over to ghostwrite an ending for Walsh's unfinished novel, he swigs his beer and puts his feet on the ottoman, his lanky cockiness as amusing to us as it is an affront to the grand dame upstage.
A crime novelist meant to suggest Dashiell Hammet, Walsh (Jim Korinke, all elegant twinkle) wants to get the book finished and then ascend at last into Simon's idea of the afterlife. Rose doesn't like Gavin, but Walsh does; they argue, and Gavin, who can't see the ghost, is left perplexed, a Paulette specialty.
The S.O.L. to my right, a dear thing who smelled like decorative bathroom soap, summed it up for our entire row: "That young man, he thinks she's crazy."
Her friend added, "This is a dilemma, isn't it?"
The rest is complication. Gavin flirts with Arlene. Rose needs to let go of Walsh, but she keeps ushering the ghost to the bedroom. Secrets are kept until the plot demands their revelation. All this necrophilia is lighthearted for a while, but once we're through the first act, Simon turns maudlin.
Oddly, though, the sentimental stuff is more interesting than the comedy. Only half the one-liners connect anyway, and the climax, with its redressing of grievances and its interest in dying, generates a warmth that I enjoyed as much as the ladies did, a contemplative feeling muscled along by extraordinary lighting and Garrett's subtle blocking. She's fearless in the face of what could be mawkish mush.
That ending which I'm going to spill, so skip to Killer Joe if you think this can be spoiled finds the beach house bathed in gorgeous light, lovers betrothed, and Rose suffering cardiac arrest. But don't worry. Death here is like a Cialis commercial, some ecumenical afterparty where you're decked out in vanilla formal wear. It's the ultimate happy ending: totally unearned yet deeply reassuring.
Simon has edged past 70; why begrudge him the hope that, in the best of all worlds, the end of life might be like this? But he doesn't seem to believe it himself. Although Rose and Walsh are both writers, they're essentially indifferent about the work they've left undone. They wrote, they stopped, and they're happy. Rose tells us that she had little left to say anyhow, and the implication is that a writer knows and is satisfied when it's time to quit. Too bad the very fact that Simon felt compelled to write this play proves his premise false. Again, people like what they like, but it would take a hearty strain of sweet old lady to make it through Killer Joe, that grubby piece of live-action snuff we previewed two weeks back. However, I took to it like they took to Simon. Ten minutes in, when Rusty Sneary makes his first measured steps across the brilliantly appointed house-trailer set, I was all pigeon. Sneary plays Joe, a murdering detective hired to kill the mother of a man named Chris (Stephen Mitsch). As in any Tracy Letts play, long scenes scrape at your nerves. As principals screw, humiliate and kick the shit out of one another, you aren't sure you should be enjoying any of it. You also won't be able to look away.
Sneary is thrilling as the devil you shouldn't invite into your home. His Joe is a feeling bastard, the kind who believes that he's fair instead of cruel. Producer Tyler Miller is both sad and hysterical as a cuckolded husband who can't decide whether he enjoys his wife's wrenching humiliation. Young Kristin Yelton comes on a little hyperactive at first but by play's end has emerged as its mopey soul. Despite the general outrageousness and the trailer-park milieu, director Scott Cordes ensures that the show is about these troubled characters and not poor white folks in general. He also stages the most visceral stage violence I've ever seen, a brawl that would decimate lesser sets. The seedy stuff feels truly seedy. A true don't-miss, if you've got the stomach.
Through October 23 at the American Heartland Theatre, 2450 Grand, Crown Center, 816-842-9999.
Through September 24 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Call