Death Takes

Life certainly has its daily struggles, but these tend to distract from the really big issues that sooner or later we all must face: Why are we here? Why do we have to die? And what should we do with the time we've got? Playwright Michael McKeever addresses the Big Three in his latest project, Running with Scissors, now playing at Florida Stage in Manalapan. Although it's not an out-and-out triumph, Scissors is a life- affirming sentimental play that showcases McKeever's growing confidence as a writer.

The play centers on a veteran book editor, Charlie Cox, who knows that all great stories ultimately boil down to two subjects: love and death. Middle-age Charlie has never had much to do with love, but he's suddenly face-to-face with death. After getting the word that he has a dread terminal illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Charlie panics, quits his job in Phoenix, and starts a headlong flight into the desert. En route to nowhere, he stops his car to pick up a lone hitchhiker, a multipierced hipster with a porkpie hat and a porcupine hairdo by the name of Wally Death. Turns out Wally is Charlie's personal Grim Reaper, who really wants him to throw in the towel so they both can get out of this hell on Earth.

Wally's hopes get sidelined when Charlie's car breaks down, prompting this odd couple to hike down to the nearest motel to call a tow truck. But the motel operator, Nell, a harried widow taking care of her invalid father-in-law, can't call out because her phone line is down, and no one seems to have access to a cell phone. Charlie hunkers down for a few days to wait while Wally, who is visible only to Charlie, frets and fumes. Charlie rues the time he wasted in his life, the book he never wrote, and the love he never found. Yet with Death at his shoulder, Charlie is surprised to find another powerful force out in the desert: love, in the form of a bubbly invisible sprite named Kiki, who sees that Charlie and Nell have possibilities, despite his limited prospects. Charlie wants to open up to love but knows his days are numbered, and his body is breaking down as surely as his car did.

This is weighty stuff, but McKeever's use of imaginary characters maintains a light playful touch. Director Louis Tyrrell makes the most of McKeever's bittersweet plot in a graceful presentation, featuring a fine acting ensemble and a superior production team. Richard Crowell's spare evocative motel set seems to spring directly from the 1950s. Costumer Suzette Paré has fun dolling up Kiki in valentine red and Wally in hipster black. Suzanne Jones adds moody lighting and an inspired use of the motel's slowly turning ceiling fans to create swirling patterns of light in the fantasy sequences.

As the doomed Charlie, Robert Elliott gives an engaging and honest performance, a welcome return to the stage after his fine work in last season's Women Who Steal. He is backed by the skillful antics of Paul Tei as Wally and Karen Stephens as Kiki. The sarcastic hipster Wally is not much of a stretch for Tei, who seems to have a monopoly on this character type in South Florida, but Tei nails it. Stephens' droll turn as Love Goddess is another score, quite a stretch from her last stage appearance as the tightly coiled editor in Bee-luther-hatchee. Dave Corey delivers fine support as Travis, Charlie's rival for Nell's affections.

But it's Angie Radosh who anchors this production as Nell, the careworn motel proprietor. Radosh, who has a real affinity for ensemble playing, offers a low-key portrait of a woman who's trapped in a cycle of subservience, first to the dreams of her late husband, then to the demands of his father. Nell, the play's best-written role, is fearful, cheerful, angry, repressed, and guilt-ridden, but dealing with her growing attraction to Charlie, she's faced with the prospect of real joy. Radosh explicates all of these nuances in a fine understated performance.

Overall, though, Scissors is not about nuance. McKeever tends to paint only in primary colors. Nell excepted, his characters are clear and empathetic but flat; there's little contradiction, grit, or dirt in them. Some of the dialogue is painfully on the nose, and the story line, as carefully balanced and trimmed as a Florida golf course, appears to answer more questions than it raises. Charlie, as the questing Everyman, is faced with a zero-sum game: It's nasty sarcastic death or joyful life-affirming love. But is death always cruel? And is love all peaches and cream? And what are we supposed to make of Nell and Charlie? Is this real love or a desperation gamble? Is Charlie taking a risk to prove a point or because, in a nick-of-time coincidence, he happens to find his soulmate? Is Nell equally lucky? Or is she about to take yet another man-driven detour away from whatever it is she wants to do with her life?

Such questions aren't raised, let alone explored, in Running with Scissors, which has a dangerous title but a script that steers clear of examining its inherent ironies and complexities. McKeever is to be commended for taking on the big questions. His answers, however, seem too easy.

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Ronald Mangravite