For the most part, Kansas City playwright William Rogers understands life and death.

The Great Hereafter 

For the most part, Kansas City playwright William Rogers understands life and death.

Death had laryngitis, which fit, even though it wasn't in the script. This Death, a leggy young woman in black capri pants, is worn out, disgruntled, given to bitching and boasting like anyone else run down by work — or life.

She's punctual, she insists, and she hates that people don't appreciate this (or any of her services). She abhors war, because of the long hours but also because all of that suffering and carnage, that waste and frailty, starts to add up over the centuries. Still, dejected as she is after millennia of mopping up the parade of human folly, she can toss out a one-liner worthy of old-school Woody Allen.

"How would you revise things?" she's asked, the question referring to creation itself.

"Better workmanship."

Death and workmanship are key to both of William Rogers' rich and engaging one-act plays, now at Just Off Broadway. In Death and the Publican, a philosophical comedy about the afterlife, Death is a featured performer; in Collisions, a crisp examination of how today's young and old blame each other for the world's madness, death hangs in the back like canned laughter on a sitcom — the characters might be deaf to it, but it roars at the audience after every line.

Then there's workmanship. Both plays are sturdily built and polished, and they hum so powerfully with themes and witty talk that, had I not known that Rogers teaches history in Kansas City, I'd have assumed that these were New York shows finally making it out here.

That said, a couple of caveats. First, several performers aren't up to Rogers' quick flights of dialogue, particularly in Death and the Publican. Too often, a line that could work only when delivered by a quick and agile tongue comes from one wearing mittens. Also, there's some script-level trouble with idiom. Much of Collisions concerns what the makers of exploitation films used to call "the youth of today." I happen to teach at the same school that Rogers does (though I've never met him), so I feel pretty confident in insisting that nobody among today's youth has ever said — to take one representative sample — "That's fine, if money's your trip."

They do say "That's awesome," though, as Rogers' kids do. They also lag in malls, picking at one another, contemplating boob jobs and imagining just how rich they're going to be someday.

Death and the Publican is the less successful of the plays. Set in a bar just on the other side of existence, Publican imagines the afterlife as an afterparty. The bartender, known as the publican (Dana Thompson, who speaks much too quickly), peddles drinks to the deceased at the price of one good story a glass. Her customers include Saint Sebastian (the beatific, funny Evan Absher), a lying Russian (Herman Johansen) and Death herself (speaking like Miles Davis due to Rachel Ray Roberts' throat troubles). Those stiff performances sometimes short-change the monologues, but Roberts and Johansen are compelling, and Amanda McCoy turns a quick tale about a dream into a dizzy, neurotic epic.

In Collisions, old folks and young folks exchange the stink-eye across a mall coffee shop early one morning. In smartly parallel discussions, they lament the state of the world, crashing head-on into dangerous topics: Iraq, immigration, homosexuality, Vietnam, Nagasaki, why Americans are so damned fat. The talk is honest, funny and sometimes brutal. (Young Caleb: "Why would God create something that turns out like them?") It escalates, and when we learn that one of the seniors has just been in a car accident involving one of the young men, we know an explosion is coming.

Evan Absher is gripping as Caleb, a Yeats-quoting rich kid. He and Herman Johansen, who plays an aging boomer not clearly aligned with either of the feuding generations, are given the most memorable rants, and both work them for everything they're worth. As young Rainey, Rachel Ray Roberts makes ennui memorable, and Amanda McCoy is strong as a barista simultaneously charmed and annoyed by both the old folks and her young friends. The show's technical aspects are excellent, which tends to be the case at Just Off Broadway productions mounted with producer and set designer Tyler Miller's involvement. Here's a glass raised to Miller's ongoing commitment to staging works by local writers.

Collisions offers the philosophy of the food court, steeped in the drama of real life. Unfortunately, at the moment all that life gathers for a climactic confrontation, Rogers' workmanship flags. The rapidity and violence of the ending — which I'm about to totally give away — is unfortunate, theatrical nonsense. That one of the old guys draws a gun reflects the character's paranoia about foreigners and terrorists; that a young guy responds in kind rings false, especially considering the clumsy explanation for why he happened to be packing heat to the coffee shop. The old man needs a gun because the world in which he felt safe is gone, but the young man doesn't need one — that world is now his.

Still, in a two-hour burst, Rogers has given us life, death and much of the stuff in between. He even offers some of the best advice I can imagine for getting through this world: "Every day," an older gent tells the barista, "find something you can enjoy the holy hell out of."

For me last Sunday, Collisions was that thing.

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