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A Moist Heaven

Theatre Central's Steambath probes life beyond this mortal coil

by Paige M. Travis

I used to dream about death. I dreamed I went to a place where people were in line to board escalators going up or down. My dream never got as far as which way I went, but it did make me wonder about where we go after we die. Maybe I thought death was like the mall.

Anyway, wondering about the afterlife is fine fuel for musing and works of art. In film, heaven has been envisioned as a cloud-filled place where angels confer with God to help hopeless humans (It's a Wonderful Life) and a parallel to Earth where everyone dresses in '40s gangster attire (Danny Boyle's A Life Less Ordinary). In Bruce Jay Friedman's play Steambath, heaven is a place where everyone wears a towel.

Or at least we think it's heaven. Maybe the word itself is never spoken. The idea is planted when the pre-show music is a heaven-themed mix tape including "Stairway to Heaven," "Hillbilly Heaven," "My Blue Heaven," etc. But the notion of where these people really are is left up to the viewer.

It's certain that these towel-clad people are dead. Tandy (Mark Palmer) figures out as much by talking to fellow newcomer Meredith (Christian Rue-Mason). They remember being alive and then everything gets foggy, or steamy as the case may be. Neither of them likes being dead because they each had so much to live for: Meredith's improving sex life and impending hair appointment; Tandy's new girlfriend and the historical novel he's writing about Charlemagne. Their compadres in the steambath don't let on that they know much: the war veteran with a mouth and bad attitude that would make Archie Bunker proud (Dave Stair); the hysterical stock broker (Kenny King); the hygiene-obsessed Beiberman (Bill Householder); and the mysterious Gottlieb (played by director Mark Moffett filling in for Scott Hooper).

This scene doesn't suit Tandy's notion about death, and when the others suggest that Morty (Robby Griffith), the Puerto Rican guy who wields a mop and a walkie-talkie, is God, he doesn't buy that either. Tandy is smart enough, but he's a bit of a pill; while the others accept their fate, he's punchy and argumentative. Whatever his living thoughts about heaven and God were, this doesn't jibe. He claims not to believe Morty is God, but he does believe the Puerto Rican has some control over the situation. He tries to convince Morty that he has too many reasons to live to be dead, that he'd just gotten his screwed-up life sorted out when, bam, he was cut down in his prime. He claims he didn't deserve to die. But we're not convinced: Is Tandy really what we'd consider a good guy? Can you live a crappy life and then make up for it?

The other characters aren't exactly angels-in-waiting. Oldtimer is foul-mouthed and prejudiced. Bieberman was killed after harassing somebody in a bar. The Broker either killed his stock broker for giving him a bad tip or killed himself after losing all his money. Tandy is convinced that Morty, who makes decisions about people's lives all over the world via walkie-talkie and a TV monitor, doesn't hand out death sentences fairly or make enough "good" in the world. "Half the things I do are good," Morty replies. "Maybe more than half."

Why do bad things happen to good people? If God exists why does he let (or make) bad things happen? Is death random or is it deserved? These are big questions for such a snappy and wise-ass play, and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman never weighs it down with dialogue too ponderous. Steambath is awash with ridiculous humor akin to some Saturday Night Live skits. Hardly a fan of slapstick or gross-out humor, I found myself laughing frequently, mostly because the delivery was so spot on. The play is irreverent and nearly offensive at times, but its concept is interesting enough to keep you guessing. The players' New York accents roam all over, but they mostly succeed in establishing the urban, streetwise tone that Friedman's play deserves. Many of these lines would fall flat in Southern accents. All the actors, however, would do well to slow down. Snappy dialogue should be delivered briskly, but it doesn't matter how fast you talk when your lines are unintelligible.

Robby Griffith plays Morty with such charisma (and a bit of a swagger), one can imagine almost (and wish) that God is a ballsy Puerto Rican who's miffed he can't get good lox.

The play ends abruptly without giving us many answers about whether Tandy convinces Morty (get it? muerte, "death" in Spanish) to send him back to live again, or if this is really heaven or another place entirely. Although the pre-show mix tape leads us to think that this stop on the tour of the afterlife is Heaven, I'm not so sure now. Steam rooms can be pretty hot and miserable.

June 7, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 23
© 2001 Metro Pulse