Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser once noted that our relationships with the dead are always changing — a comment that pulled me up short at the time. The dead are long past contributing to conversations with the living, I thought. But, of course, these conversations take place constantly, as our memories shift and change in the light of our own continuing experiences. Jeffrey Hatcher's Three Viewings reveals that sometimes only at death do we fully realize how we feel about the departed — and perhaps ourselves; that death can bring out the best and the worst in survivors; and that no matter how familiar the deceased may be, he can still surprise us.
Each of the three monologues in this play, while very different, involves a negotiation with a corpse. "Tell-Tale" is an homage to Edgar Allen Poe's famous horror story "The Telltale Heart," in which the protagonist murders an old man and is driven to madness because he cannot stop the steady, muffled beating of his victim's heart from sounding in his ears. The horror in "Tell-Tale" is muted and gentle, however, having less to do with florid madness or the supernatural than with the simple finality and inexplicability of death. Emil, a funeral director, muses about the real-estate agent he loved in secret for many years. He would silently repeat "I love you" to her uncomprehending back in the hope that somehow the words would insinuate themselves into her consciousness. Perhaps they did; there's a single ambiguous line that indicates she may have had feelings for him. But this was an odd, quietly corrupt relationship, as Emil used his position of trust to help his beloved find clients. True to the monologue's title, that still-beating heart does indeed turn up, in a completely unexpected way.
The second speaker, in "The Thief of Tears," is Mac — a raunchy, tough-talking woman who makes a living stealing jewelry from corpses, a skill she's perfected and explains in detail. Her description of bending over to kiss a body and emerging with a pair of diamond earrings clamped in her teeth is hilarious, though it did make me stop and wonder whether the dead woman's ears were pierced or not. Mac's no sentimentalist, but she does have the occasional scruple. Acting out her attempt to remove a ring from a particularly significant stiff, she comments, "I do not want to break my grandmother's finger." And it turns out that Mac has her own griefs to bear.
Presented by Crossroads at Five Points Theater through August 4, 2590 Washington Street, 303-832-0929, www.denvercrossroads.com.
Finally, we meet a dignified middle-class widow who learns after her husband has died that the man she describes as a wheeler-dealer was in thick with the Mafia; he's cheated many people and left her with more than a million dollars' worth of debt. The writing in "Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti" is more satiric and less overtly emotional than in the other two monologues, and the piece carries a rather pat little surprise in its tail, but "Carpolotti" is funny and ultimately touching.
Hatcher's writing is mordantly witty, entertaining without being shallow, and director Terry Dodd (who tells us in the program that he spent several summers working at his uncle's funeral home in Oklahoma) does the script justice. He has wisely kept the set clean and simple: a funeral parlor with a couch in the center, flanked by two arrangements of white poinsettias. The space is simultaneously charged and meaningless, as such carefully ordered and sanitized areas tend to be. Most of the focus is on the three talented and expressive actors who bring the words of the play to life. Phil Luna communicates Emil's passion in a way that's both dopey and touching. Catherine Di Bella gives us a vital, funny, in-your-face and whiskey-voiced Mac. Jan Cleveland's widow has a controlled, charming and sophisticated exterior that covers some very confused emotions. Three Viewings goes down easy, but it also gives you a few things to ponder later, during your own attempts to pierce the fog over the Styx.
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