“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” The Book
of Corinthians may have meant
the question rhetorically, but mortality
stings everyone in Deathbed, Mark Schultz’s caustic new play. It primarily affects Martha, a young woman with a cancer
diagnosis, and Thomas, an old man
who’s decided to commit suicide. But friends, lovers, a dog, even the paperboy—
death touches them all.
And yet, one of Schultz’s arguments is that it doesn’t touch them very much. The other characters use these impending ends as opportunities not to offer solace or forge more profound relationships,
but to indulge their own egoism. Martha’s husband Danny sees her illness as a chance to renew his drinking problem. Thomas’s granddaughter Susan employs his suffering to manipulate her ex. “My grandfather is dying,” she says. “And I need you to comfort me. . . . Say nice
things to me. You don’t know how upset I am. I’m really upset. . . . Try harder. I’m upset. I’m really upset. Try harder. Never mind. I hate you.”
In Everything Will Be Different, Schultz’s first New York outing, which ran in 2005 at Soho Rep, the playwright crafted characters unable to connect with each other even as they employ the simplest of words and syntax. Schultz writes in modishly short sentences, clipped but not in the least elliptical. In Deathbed, the actors seem to enjoy these brief lines, making sense of the abrupt rhythms and supplying the emotions that the words themselves exclude. Jonathan Walker, as Danny, and Emily Donahoe, as Susan, each playing a monster of self-involvement, manage particularly well.
In Schultz’s previous play, death also brought out the worst in people. A mother’s passing sends her husband into an exclusive relationship with the TV and their daughter toward a breakdown. Here, the consequences aren’t so dire, nor the work as poignant. Schultz has tended even more toward the acerbic, allowing him to pack nine characters and 25 scenes into 50 minutes. The script is shrewd, and funny, too, but it doesn’t sit with any character long enough to really involve an audience. Schultz seems not unaware of this. In the play’s framing device, two women read a novel, also called Deathbed. Having finished the book, one remarks, “It was very sad.” But then, considering, she decides, “Not that sad.” And then, finally: “I think I want a sandwich.”