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Death, Where Is Thy Wit?

Nothing brings theater to life like a little death. Let a doctor say someone has only a few months to live, and you've got drama. In recent years some of the best productions have posted alarming mortality rates. Gay characters, in particular, have struggled through the final stages of AIDS in plays like Angels in America, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Jeffrey. Given the acclaim of these and other plays written at a time when a diagnosis of AIDS means a death sentence, the notion of producing a drama about people battling cancer seems downright antiquated.

Back in 1977, several years before AIDS was even an issue, two such plays set in hospitals opened in New York within a week of each other. The most acclaimed, Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box, won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for its story about three terminally ill patients and their families. The second, Cold Storage by Ronald Ribman, ran for a month off-Broadway; a rewritten version was then opened uptown. Martin Balsam starred in both incarnations of Ribman's drama and won an Obie and a New York Outer Critics Circle Award for his role as a fruit seller dying of throat cancer.

Twenty-one years later the Broadway version of Cold Storage premieres in South Florida at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, and, quite frankly, it isn't worth the wait. In his play Ribman throws together the terminal grocer and a man undergoing exploratory surgery in an atmosphere that should ripple with an emotional charge. But the two cancer patients evade their anxieties with small talk about daily exercise routines and fruit-stand inventories. When they do finally get personal, it's only to chase after the past in an irrelevant subplot that does nothing to reveal their feelings.

With the help of some asphalt and some stone planters, Arnold Dolan's functional set neatly transforms the HBT's floor-level stage into the roof garden of Manhattan's Hope Memorial Hospital. Joseph Parmigian, an Armenian grocer (played by Arland Russell), spends most of his time in the garden, sitting alone in his wheelchair. A cantankerous old man, he discourages other patients from visiting the roof whenever he's there. When we first meet him, however, he's in the company of his former private-duty nurse, Miss Madurga (a fleeting role sweetly played by Ivonne Pelaez), and her latest charge, Richard Landau (Joel Kolker), who has been wheeled into the garden for some fresh air.

The ailing Parmigian chases the Filipino nurse away with racial slurs, then complains that the hospital laundry has stretched his pajamas so much that they no longer fit. It's a bit of information he feels his companion ought to know, because Landau, who advises rich clients on fine-art investments for a living, has shown up for his cancer tests in burgundy silk pajamas and a stylish matching bathrobe.

Soon Parmigian is wheedling Landau into conversation and belligerently voicing his opinions. Russell uses Parmigian's frequent tirades to express a dying man's desperation and anger. He is less effective in handling the scripted hints that could make Parmigian more interesting than annoying. Most of the time, the immigrant grocer flaunts his bigoted views about Jews and Puerto Ricans, but he also boasts that he's read all six volumes of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene -- twice. In addition to his surprising reading habits, which are confirmed by his ex-nurse, Parmigian also shows his softer side. His insurance benefits have just run out, and he worries that his wife of 30 years won't be able to cope with paying the bills after he's dead.

Part of Russell's problem is the play itself. Ribman follows Parmigian's moving confession by having the grocer half-heartedly attempt suicide by threatening to roll his wheelchair off the roof. Staged for laughs, his bid to end it all comes out of nowhere and is just as quickly forgotten. On the other hand, Ribman's unwillingness to delve into his characters' psyches helps Kolker, who delivers a convincingly cold portrayal of the upper-crust Landau.

Sure that his exploratory tests will be completed in time for him to return home and finish off the boiled meat in the refrigerator, Landau dismisses Parmigian's claim that no one in the cancer wing just pops in for a short stay. He's also too cultured and repressed to show his disgust, so he parries Parmigian's attempts at conversation with brief, noncommittal answers.

As the two men verbally circle each other, director Joseph Adler has them incessantly roll their wheelchairs about the stage. At times Kolker even jumps in and out of his like a jack-in-the-box. If this is the kind of dizzying workout patients get in a hospital, they should be resting at home. Adler also shifts the focus of the play by driving it toward a denouement that is even less exciting than the action leading up to it.

Unable to accept impending death, the well-read Parmigian seizes upon the discovery that Landau is Jewish. He immediately tries to pressure his companion into revealing some of the answers to life's mysteries found in the Jewish religious text the Cabala. Landau doesn't hold the key to the universe, but, prompted by Parmigian, he unlocks his past by recalling buried memories of his childhood in Nazi Europe. Jolted by what he's remembered, he vows to find purpose in his life.

Landau's catharsis breaks down his icy reserve, and Kolker seizes the opportunity to show another side of his character. While his efforts are noble, this sudden change comes across as a contrived way to force a happy ending on the play, in which the two men become friends. Once exceedingly reserved Landau is now Mr. Affable, willing to get in touch with his emotions and reach out to Parmigian. While such a transformation is possible, there's no basis for it in the script: The events in Landau's childhood really weren't that traumatic, nor did they keep him from succeeding in the fine-art market.

The original off-Broadway version of Cold Storage dramatized Landau's memories by introducing a fourth character in a scene set in a police station in Portugal in 1941. The extra scene was cut for the Broadway version in what I assume was an attempt to underscore the connection between Landau and Parmigian and downplay Landau's past.

The play's structure isn't the only thing that has undergone changes. Although classified as a drama by Samuel French, the company that leases the performing rights, Cold Storage was billed as a comedy during its six-month Broadway run. Even more curious, the Broadway review snippets employed by both French and HBT include quotes that are witty, rib-tickling, and funny.

Ribman's uneven script offers both odd-couple humor and the drama inspired by Parmigian's acceptance of death and Landau's embrace of life. The script, however, lacks a compelling plot, and Adler's direction stays faithful without taking a close look at the characters' relationship. So for the most part, Russell's Parmigian comes off as mean-spirited and Kolker's Landau as leaden. It doesn't make for much of a comedic combination, and neither Russell nor Kolker plays up the ethnicity of his role, thus robbing each portrayal of depth. Finally, both Armenians and Jews have survived atrocious genocide attempts, yet the irony of these two characters meeting in a cancer ward is never explored.

By play's end Parmigian and Landau still call each other by their last names, as if strangers. Certainly the audience has been given no reason to bond with these characters nor any insight that leads us to understand them. The events in the garden are simply too prosaic, considering the life-and-death struggles that take place in a hospital.

It may be that in such situations people stick to surface relationships and polite evasions. But Cold Storage was written for the theater, and plays about death should teach us much more.

Cold Storage.
Written by Ronald Ribman. Directed by Joseph Adler. Starring Arland Russell, Joel Kolker, and Ivonne Pelaez. Through March 8. Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, 1938 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-929-5400.


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