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Theater review: 'Vigil' at the Mark Taper Forum

November 7, 2011 |  6:00 pm


“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Nell in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” Morris Panych, a playwright with a distinctly Beckettian sensibility, offers support for this claim in “Vigil,” his mordant 1995 tragicomedy now playing at the Mark Taper Forum. The production, directed by Panych and starring Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis, ran last year at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

If Beckett hadn’t used it first, “Endgame” would be a good title for “Vigil,” in which a middle-aged misanthrope, summoned by his elderly, failing aunt, rushes to her bedside and waits for her to die. Actually, he urges, badgers and harangues her to die, taking increasingly macabre action to speed the process along. 

Kemp (Barricelli) met Grace (Dukakis) only once before, 30 years earlier, when he dreamed that she would rescue him from his miserable childhood. He has always resentfully assumed that he just wasn’t charming enough. (“Do you think I enjoyed playing the accordion for you? Did you think ‘Camptown Races’ was my idea?”) 

Grace, a fragile, snowy-haired invalid living in cluttered squalor, unable or unwilling to talk, appears to have no idea who he is. 

The scenario evokes a fairy tale or existential prison. It’s unclear where Grace’s bedroom, charmingly realized on Ken MacDonald’s off-kilter set, is located, in either space or time. Stuffed with ancient junk (a Victrola!) and faded floral prints, it has a wall of windows with no view: Most of the panes are taped over with pieces of cardboard. In some of Alan Brodie and Robert Hahn’s lighting schemes, these squares and rectangles resemble a beautiful cityscape; in others they convey a Dickensian poverty.

Kemp appears here, beside the startled Grace’s bed, determined to dispatch his duty. A boorish, self-pitying and self-loathing megalomaniac, he seems unable not to say the wrong thing, even, or especially, when he’s trying to be kind. 

“Let’s not talk about anything depressing,” he sighs soon after arriving. “Do you want to be cremated?” He sets about planning her estate sale, rehearsing her eulogy and drawing up her will. “You’re leaving everything to me.”

After a while you might think the joke is getting thin, or you might take a wicked pleasure in it, akin to the thrill of seeing the Road Runner foil the Coyote. Some physical business is pretty cartoonish too, as in the backfiring of a surreal suicide machine Kemp builds for Grace, with the option of death by electric shock or by “massive blow to the head.” “Whatever works for you,” he intones in a perfect parody of our passive-aggressively therapeutic culture.

Eventually, though, the long-threatened sentimentality breaks through all obstacles (including a wild, gutsy Act 2 shocker that nearly turns the whole evening into a sick joke). The ending meanders a little, as though the writer is stalling. That it does wind up being moving owes a great deal to the performances — as well as to Panych’s direction. 

Barricelli doesn’t make Kemp lovable. Not even a bunny could. But he does deliver an entertaining, deliciously human storyteller. Most of us have had the hateful thoughts Kemp confesses, even felt the antisocial urges he acts out. Barricelli plays him not as a monster but as an overgrown toddler, stuffed into an itchy wool suit, having a temper tantrum.

Dukakis, meanwhile, brings a luminous soulfulness to her almost wordless role. She’s good at reacting to Kemp without giving anything away, but the obligation is a little unnatural, and she really shines when she gets to do something — sneak a smoke or gorge on candy — that betrays the impish rebel behind her meek demeanor. So persuasive is her silence that when she does finally talk, it’s almost disappointing. Unless she were going to clear everything up for me in a profound way, I wanted Grace, like Harpo Marx, never to speak at all.

-- Margaret Gray

“Vigil,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18. $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 2 hours

Photo: Grace (Olympia Dukakis) remains alive even though her misanthropic nephew, Kemp (Marco Barricelli), would like her to die, in the American Conservatory Theater production of Morris Panych's "Vigil" at the Mark Taper Forum. Credit: Craig Schwartz.