Katherine Maughan‘s An Evening With Kirk Douglas opens on a modest, tidy motel suite, with a neatly made-up bed, a nightstand, and a backpack resting on a table. Enter Maisie Kingsley, a young wife celebrating her first anniversary with a road trip around northern California. Her hands are covered with blood. Lots of it – that garishly bright, glistening theatrical blood favored by make-up artists. Immediately there is tension. Maisie moves about restlessly in a state of shock. She wants something in her backpack, but is reluctant to touch anything with her gore drenched hands. A beat. She tries delicately picking at a pocket zip on the bag. Okay – now it’s funny. The phone begins to ring. Maisie’s eyes open wide with terror. The tension tightens as we witness her dilemma. Enter -thank goodness! – her husband, Walter. Without batting an eyelid he begins a discussion about answering the phone. The phone continues to sound shrilly, and your nerves begin to stretch, as you watch these two – presumably imperiled fugitives – show every sign of bungling their escape because of some thick-headed disagreement.
As an introductory scene that builds dramatic tension while playing on comical ridiculousness, these opening moments are truly a class act. It’s contemporary screwball with a nod in the direction of something darker. The humor is sustained, the scenario explained (weird and funny), as our protagonist couple try to come to terms with what they have done, and what they must do. While a body lies bleeding in their bathtub, the high drama of the situation is comically undercut by their frequent segues into petty irritable exchanges and inappropriate sentimental overtures. High-strung Maisie is hopelessly panic-prone and histrionic, and Walter contrarily hard-headed and calculating. Everything they have done thus far, around the scene of an accident, is exactly the wrong thing to have done. It’s a funny metaphor, but only a matter of time, you surmise, before Maisie deploys those blood-stained hands in an inadvisable manner. Which shortly she does in epic fashion, hysterical to observe. As played by Morgan Grace Jarrett (Maisie) and Winston Noel (Walter) this first part of Maughan’s two act play is clever and funny, wickedly so. It’s too bad everything it has going for it is let down by what follows.
Farcical as the first part was, we have removed to much further along the comedic scale, and foolishness, for the second act. We are in heaven, in the company of God, Jesus, and St. Peter, who are conducting a dull staff meeting regarding the day’s expected entrants at the Pearly Gates. It may be amusing to entertain the notion of these figures as broad 21st century types – God as an unimaginative authority figure with a soft spot for celebrities, Jesus as a responsibility-shy, feel-good slacker, and St. Peter as a put-upon, under-appreciated, make-do manager – but only mildly so. The day’s big arrival is going to be Kirk Douglas, which is exciting for God who has been trying to reel him in for some time now. Jesus meantime is grumbling about the present batch of his followers who find their way up here; they’re limited and boring. Heaven is presented as something like a less than spectacular, under-serviced holiday camp. Everything, however, is thrown out there merely for its humorous appeal, and nothing activates to drive along a plot, or even describe one. With a start-stop momentum, it’s a loose sequence of sketches, of variable impact, set in the same environment. Except for the fleeting appearance of Kirk Douglas – with allusions to the reason for his demise – it has hardly any connection to the previous act, holds nothing of its pedigree, and leaves a much weaker wake in its trail.
Too bad, as some of the actors – Brian Faas (in a class of his own as St. Peter), Austin Rye (Jesus), and Brandon Scott Jones (Caleb, a Jesus freak) – have something going here. The author’s looser writing, however, just goes nowhere. It’s not aided by Kerry McGuire‘s slack hand in the directing role, who might have contributed something with just a tighter blocking of her actors. The obvious unevenness between the two acts is problematic and partly spoils enjoyment of some promising comedic writing by the young Katherine Maughan.
An Evening With Kirk Douglas was part of the 2012 Fringe Festival.