There are plenty of one-line zingers in the play "Rest, In Pieces." More importantly, there is plenty of soul searching when the unsettling prospect of mortality comes within this family structure.
It's a subject most people don't want to face. So, you have to give playwright Steve Bluestein buckets of chutzpah for staring death in the face in the regional premiere of his play that opened last Saturday at the Delaware Theater Company and runs through November 23. It's a beguiling 90 minutes, one that is both thoughtfully probing and wickedly funny. A play that on occasions unexpectedly makes the audience gasp.
"Rest, In Pieces" offers a fresh dramatic comedy about a delightfully dysfunctional family, a journey through the life of a Jewish family dealing with loss. A never ending chess game, it is told from three points of view, a mother and father in their early 60's, and their son who is 38. Each of the play's three acts unveils how two of the characters respond when the third exits this earth.
A longtime Los Angeles-based comedy writer, Bluestein masterfully explores the ways in which humanity deals with the ultimate truth of death through silly chatter, platitudes and heart-wrenching regrets. The play is beautifully directed with wit and compassion by Bud Martin, Dekaware Theater Company's executive director and artistic director.
A man for all seasons, Bluestein has navigated a 20-year career as a comedy writer that spans television, movies, and scores of appearances at comedy clubs across the country.
"I met with Steve's manager in the village in New York and he convinced me to read the play," Martin related. "There had been no full production of it and he thought I would be the right director to do it. I've always been intrigued by dysfunctional family drama. I thought Steve's work was terrific and I liked his thinking and reasons why he wrote it. This a really honest production, not was just a bunch of jokes with a storyline around it. I thought it was terrific, so I decided to do it.
"Honestly, I wasn't familiar with Steve. He was easy to talk to over the phone, so I thought he would be a good collaborator. He was good about the rewrites in the third act. He put in the time and work to make it a good play."
The play is designed to make the audience reflect on their own family and what would be missed about them if they passed away. In the third act the meltdown of Leona and Ben in the aftermath of Stevie's death is especially poignant and powerful.
"Just when you think you're ready to cry, you laugh, or the other way around," Martin observed. "The play captures a lot of fun in the first two acts, but then the third act, it turns the tables on us. Most of us have experienced these feelings or through other family members and friends. The takeaway: tell people you love them before it's too late."
Martin has rounded up a superb cast. Brooklyn native Donna Pescow-- best known as Annette from the hit 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever" and television's "Even Steven"-- was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role in "Angie." The three-time Emmy nominee plays the maniacally yammering Leona, the heavy-handed and self-centered wife and mother.
Pescow shares the stage with Lenny Wolpe as her character's mild-mannered husband Ben, whose greatest relief comes when he escapes by death. Wolpe is fresh off the rousing success of "Bullets Over Broadway." A Broadway veteran, starring in such productions as "Wicked," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "The Sound of Music" and "Into the Light," Wolpe lights up the Wilmington Riverfront stage.
Fran Vlastnick-- from Broadway's "A Year With Frog And Toad," "Big" and "Sweet Smell of Success"-- rounds out the cast as Stevie, a LA-based comedy writer. A neurotic, desperate, and brilliant comic genius, Stevie unleashes a non-stop stream of jokes to combat the love-starved life he's dealt with from his mother. Vlastnick has appeared on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," "The Good Wife," "Person of Interest" and "Law and Order."
The stage set of Apartment 3-C in a Brooklyn high rise is beautifully designed by Dirk Durosette. It serves as a realistic and complimentary back-drop to the carefully blocked movements and actions of the cast. Door slamming, plate smashing, magazine throwing, heartbreak and laughter all happen here and the set holds up well. On the night of Stevie's funeral a realistic thunderstorm drums rain against the living room window while lightening streaks the sky. The skyline of neighboring buildings remind the audience that there is a whole city of life happening around the lives and deaths of the family in 3-C.
Fresh out of college, Bluestein became a founding member of the Comedy Store Players which eventually morphed into The Groundlings. A native of Boston, his stand-up comedy talent has been honed by years performing from Las Vegas and Atlantic City to Reno, Tahoe and countless comedy clubs across the nation. In a recent blog, Bluestein talked about his struggle to get "Rest, In Pieces" into production:
"Many of you don’t know how long I have been fighting to get this play produced. It’s been a long time, too long to even think about. When I was doing stand up and was so tired of the road and the road life, I thought, 'I’ll write plays… that’ll be easy.' Writing the play was very easy, getting it produced not so much. If you only knew the number of readings I had to do… the number of personalities I had to endure…the number of insults and disappointments and stupidity I had to contend with.
"It has not been easy. But…big BUT… of all the things I have ever written, this play is the one thing I am most proud of. And, I could endure the insults and the personalities and the traumas because I knew, deep in my heart, the play is the thing. The play will stand on its own. The play will survive even if I don’t."
In "Rest, In Pieces" the audience voyeurs into a family's loss, one that evokes strong emotions as we see reactions we don't expect, don't agree with, or can't help but laugh along with.
"Working with Donna, Frank and Lenny has been a great mix of serious drama and comedy chops," Martin reflected. "They are why we call it a play. They are so much fun."