Alex, the infant son of Karl and Wendy, has died, and his first birthday now approaches. How can you come to terms with the death of a baby? All the Dead Biddles, a world premiere now running at Plays and Players, dives into the issue of inconsolable grief.
Wendy relives the horror. She croons “Hush, Little Baby,” pushing infant Alex (a doll) in a baby stroller. Alex stops breathing, Wendy screams for help. Then Wendy brightens as she solves the problem with a couple of double-A batteries. The doll again coos, “Mama,” and you know right off you are in for a strange evening.
Shelli Pentimall Bookler wrote the play while her father was dying. She and her husband, Matt Bookler, cofounded the Underbite Theatre Company, dedicated to producing edgy, provocative works from Philadelphia-area talent. Witty and immensely original, her own dark and zany play lives up to the company’s mission.
Others have written about grief — C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, for example, or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observed a stagelike process of mourning. But those writers sought the distance provided by meaningfulness. All the Dead Biddles is about grief unadorned.
Colleen Corcoran (she recently starred in the EgoPo production of Anna Karenina) is formidable as delusional Wendy. Anthony Marsala matches up as her distraught husband, pushed to the limits. But their “helpers” can steal the show. Dr. Francis (Barry Gomolka) combines psychobabble with bonsai tree therapy, and compassionate Inez (Marisol Custodio), the live-in nanny, pours her Mexican cemetery fiesta culture into the mix.
Director Carly L. Bodnar keeps a brisk pace in this 90-minute show. Thanks to set designer Jason Kramer, we see Karl’s study, Wendy’s kitchen, Dr. Francis’ office. When two characters are in the spotlight, the other two are often silently present in dim light, cocooned in private worlds.
Then, in a gathering of disjointed mania, they invade one another’s domain. Wendy sits in Karl’s office, drinks his whiskey “medicine,” and uses his computer monitor to spy on Karl as he cozies up to Inez in the kitchen. Dr. Francis dons a “Freud was a Mama’s Boy” T-shirt and chants Indian mantras on a living room mat.
But even in trespass, everyone stays in character. In the unpredictable, madcap finale, All the Dead Biddles feels a little like a bad dream. But your own nightmares were never this full of laughs. So, if you are weary of the relentless, modern effort to bring all suffering to “closure,” you might want to stop by and help these folks celebrate Alex’s birthday.
All the Dead Biddles
Through Jan. 21 at Skinner Studio at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street. Tickets: 15-$20. Information: 215-735-0630, playsandplayers.org.