Alan Ball’s HBO series about the messy lives of funeral home owners grasping at happiness in the shadow of their embalmed clients caught some crucial boomer zeitgeist. Airing during a presidency aggressively disinclined to acknowledge reality, Six Feet Under dared to suggest that virtually no American dream was a guaranteed bulwark against the terrifying prospect of one’s inevitable demise. Ball always imagined the levees could fail.
Now the show has passed over into DVD afterlife, but its influence lives on, raising the bar for dramatists who try to make time with the grim reaper. Colder Than Here and The Pavilion, two New York premieres about life choices in the context of eternity, lead one to pine for Six Feet‘s Fisher and Diaz families, who managed to be as repressed and unhinged, as absurd and moving, as any stage characters in recent memory.
The title of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here, which premiered in London earlier this year, refers to the chilliness of the grave with a bit of gallows humor; it’s also inadvertent code that this play is so British and buttoned-down you can smell the marmite. A terribly middle-class family is trying not to acknowledge that its matriarch, Myra (Judith Light), has weeks to live. Meanwhile, Myra cheerfully (read: passive-aggressively) plans her own funeral, insisting on a cardboard coffin and burial in an eco-friendly plot surrounded by trees instead of headstones.
Wade has a nice sense of the offhand, how conversations grow out of small moments and the way jokes turn challenge into connection. But despite Colder‘s universally implicating premise—who hasn’t struggled with how to say the long goodbye?—Wade merely domesticates oblivion instead of letting it ransack the parlor. Yes, small can be revelatory, but there’s something timid and constricting about Wade’s style that reflects more than just her characters’ milieu.
Like Myra, director Abigail Morris’s ensemble is environmentally conscious. Faithful to the text, they’re careful not to consume more than the playwright offers them. The result is several faultless performances of a modesty that makes you yearn for bigger stuff (especially the leonine Brian Murray and on-point Sarah Paulson). Light, who’s revived her career by dying gracefully—she starred in the national tour of Wit—has a pleasing stage presence: She’s real, without vanity, and the audience constantly looks to her, hoping for catharsis or at least a display of outrageous bad manners. Nothing doing. Colder Than Here ultimately wants to be about how a mother’s impending death forces her younger, troubled daughter (Lily Rabe) to grow up and get a life. But a play about the perils of being too tidy about decomposition stays too polite to ever really come alive.
If Colder pulls its punches, The Pavilion wraps its juicy melodrama in cotton candy metaphysics. Written by Six Feet staff writer Craig Wright before his TV career took off, this effusive, unbalanced early work is a kind of warm-up to his more recent, compelling Orange Flower Water. Both plays take place in Pine City, Minnesota, where Keillor- esque types measure their Midwestern lives with plastic coffee spoons and against their neighbors’ latest snafus.
Twenty years ago, high school senior Peter (Brian D’Arcy James) abandoned his pregnant girlfriend, Kari (Jennifer Mudge), who then chose to have an abortion. Two decades later, Peter’s miserable, trailing a series of failed relationships; Kari’s married to a golf nut who resents her refusal to bear his child.
Cue the 20th class reunion. Peter shows up in hopes of gaining forgiveness—if not a second chance—with his former love. Will the school’s golden couple rediscover the elusive happiness that once seemed so effortlessly present? Should they even try?
Instead of trusting his characters’ very real dilemmas to frame larger questions of expectation and regret, Wright overwhelms the story with cosmic guff. Pavilion‘s pinch hitter Stephen Bogardus plays a roster of reunion malcontents as well as God’s Stage Manager, who opens the play with a verbal creation of the world and later intones such things as “In the middle of life, we find ourselves alive.” (Director Lucie Tiberghien lets this faux lyricism get way too comfy.)
Wright’s down-to-earth longing proves vastly more affecting. In one of the play’s best moments, Peter, hilariously the only surviving member of a local garage band, sings a bittersweet ballad that captures the genuine heartache at Pavilion‘s core. Who needs infinity when there’s 4/4 time? And Mudge finds power in the specifics of Kari’s story, mining the character’s hard-edged defensiveness for all its ambivalent force—she’s simultaneously the play’s best resistance to its own sentiment and its moral center.
It’ll be interesting to see what Wright does next; let’s hope he’s haunted by Six Feet‘s Fisher family in all the toughest ways.