“A witty, tender, well-written, exquisitely acted philosophical tour.”
The first scene in Craig Lucas’s new play, Three Tales of Life and Death, is deceptively simple. The lights go up on an old man and an old woman. They trepidatiously flirt and arthritically move through the motions of intimacy, and though the scene is the shortest of the five total that make up this 65-minute production, it sets up this witty, tender, well-written, and exquisitely acted philosophical tour perfectly. The show repeatedly features deceptively quaint situations like this one, then digs deeper, revealing hidden meanings along the way that are both truly affecting and genuinely entertaining.
The play is presented as a triptych. Section 1 is labeled ‘Life,’ Section 2 is ‘Death,’ and Section 3 is ‘The Afterlife.’ The same two actors tag in and out, playing different characters in each scene, from partners in dialogue to solo performers in monologue and back again.
It is paramount to credit actors Pamela Shaw and Richard Kline for the joy of watching Three Tales of Life and Death. Director Hunter Bird makes commendable choices in numerous set and costume details, but it is these two that elevate the play with their magnetism. To single out their age as a defining characteristic of their performances would be too simple — at any age, the power of Kline’s sympathetic face and voice, and Shaw’s sparkling eyes and affecting smile cannot be denied. Though some plays can feel claustrophobic when staged in venues as teeny as the literal shipping container that is the Assembly Front Room, Three Tales of Life and Death is well-placed. Even when an actor stands facing away from a section of the audience, and sightlines become quite slim, the power of the scene is not lost, due to the vocal and physical power of the performers, even with the simplest acts like unfurling an umbrella or a shake of the head.
The subject matter struggles ever so slightly to keep up with the raw talent of the performers from time to time — some scenes are better-staged and more dynamically-written than others, essentially. Lucas’s play takes on some daring subjects, from the aftermath of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture to the AIDS quilt being displayed on the National Mall, and though not everyone may agree with the opinions voiced within it, the play’s insinuations do tend to remain on the side of legitimately profound rather than preachy or narrow-minded. Observations on mortality, parental relationships, aging, regret, art journalism, and septuagenarian fellatio are both entertaining and relatable, where a lazier team might have resorted to cheap jokes or a more morose approach.
But the assembled talent is anything but lazy, and I am challenged to think of a play as humble and effective as this one, with a central duo as charming. If nothing else, go to see Kline and Shaw at work. It is refreshing to see seasoned actors performing for intimate audiences, and with material this sensitive and well-handled, these are tales certainly worth hearing.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller