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The only mystery in life even greater than love is the ultimate unknown of death — and what, if anything, may await us beyond that terminus. This is the profound subject of The Undertaking, an ambitious piece written and staged by Steve Cosson, a founder and the current artistic director of The Civilians. Typical among previous shows created by The Civilians are Gone Missing, a work regarding lost personal objects, and Pretty Filthy, a musical about the porn industry, both developed from real-life interviews and field research — as is this latest event.
Of course, neither Cosson nor Jessica Mitrani, his “creative collaborator” (as she is billed in the program distributed at 59E59 Theaters), were able to do any scouting over on the other side of mortality. Drawn from personal interviews, The Undertaking is a seriocomic, overly diffuse eighty-minute effort that mixes the voices of more than half a dozen people, including a woman who nearly died in a ski accident; a cancer patient whose therapy involved an hallucinatory trip on psilocybin; an embalming-school drop-out; a hospice worker; and, among others, Everett Quinton, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company star who has lived to witness all too many AIDS-related deaths of his personal and professional partners. This discursive presentation also screens fleeting fragments from Orphée (Orpheus), the dreamy 1950 French film by Jean Cocteau inspired by the Greek myth that details a trip to the underworld.
These various elements are framed within a cozy tête-à-tête between Cosson’s alter ego, Steve (Dan Domingues), and Mitrani’s counterpart, Lydia (Aysan Celik), middle-aged artists and apparently longtime chums, who are depicted as discussing Steve’s latest in-progress theater project for The Civilians. Their conversation transpires in Lydia’s Manhattan studio, which designer Marsha Ginsberg renders as an off-white room modestly furnished with IKEA-type pieces: a daybed, a scattering of houseplants. As the show progresses, the walls reflect an array of images including a fiery mosaic of a Janus head, a panorama of the starry cosmos, and the sepia-shaded clips from Orphée.
As Steve plays his recorded interviews, he and eventually Lydia assume the distinctive voices of his subjects, whose random observations on deathly matters are thoughtful, insightful, or trivial. “Interesting” is the word Lydia uses several times to comment upon these remarks — and that proves to be an accurate assessment for the tenor of this study in mortality, which touches upon myriad aspects of the vast subject it undertakes to explore. The various tidings gleaned from Cosson’s interviews, however, remain largely simplistic, scarcely scratching the surface of such a grave theme.
Gradually the focus narrows into considering the circumstances regarding Steve’s own anxieties over mortality. Lydia offers to act as his psychopomp — a spirit or demon, such as the Grim Reaper or the Greek ferryman Charon, who escorts souls to the afterlife — and proceeds to guide Steve toward his own personal underworld. At this point the show dissolves into silliness as the two of them, emboldened by wine and tequila, construct out of the daybed and a few cushions a little pillow fort into which Steve will descend to confront his fears about dying, death, and what possibly comes after. A welter of live video, projected images, voiceovers, and more Orphée clips accompany Steve’s journey into the twilight zones of his psyche.
Unfortunately, the psychological lint that Cosson/Steve manages to pick from this stretch of navel-gazing turns out to be not especially revelatory. (Interesting: There’s the word for it.) Finally, a rather pretty let’s-enjoy-life-while-we-live-it coda gracefully eases the audience towards the exits, some eighty minutes older and probably none the wiser for the experience. Although The Undertaking disappoints in these terms of meaningfulness, the actors’ chatty aplomb and the smooth production values offer an unexpectedly pleasant glance into the valley of the shadows.