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Graceful cast saves 'Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle'

Son of Semele's 'The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle': Overwhelming but tender, graceful

At first, “The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle” by Irish playwright Ross Dungan gives the impression of a short story that somehow fell into the submission pile at Son of Semele theater — whereupon director Matthew McCray gamely gathered his ensemble and staged it anyway.

The eight players, dressed in white by costume designer Lynne Marie Martens and crammed onto Sarah Krainin’s cluttered set, take turns narrating the story. Eric Argyle (the likeably brusque Craig Fleming) is struck by a bus and wakes up in a vaguely corporate purgatory, where he is forced by businesslike employees (Bruce A. Lemon Jr. and Melina Bielefelt) to watch scenes from his life.

The setup is familiar, primarily from the Albert Brooks comedy “Defending Your Life,” but the narration is far wordier, a challenge to both actors and audience. (It might sound better in Irish, but I was grateful to McCray for not adding accents to the mix).

The script introduces other story lines: A cellist named Jessica Bolger (Sarah Rosenberg) receives a mystifying delivery of 5,307 letters. The sole guests at Eric’s funeral, Mr. Aldershot (Don Boughton) and Mr. Downey (a charmingly dry Dan Via), wait in the graveyard for an unnamed third. A little girl named Imelda, a fey puppet made of odds and ends and operated by Rosenberg and Bielefelt, witnesses her aunt (Inga Wilson) fighting with a lover.

At this point, overwhelmed, I feared I would see my own life flash before my eyes. Then one of those rare miracles of theatrical alchemy occurred, and I became suddenly rapt. The reenactments from Eric’s life — with Rick Steadman stepping in as his younger self — played out with comic tenderness, introducing characters with lightly sketched flaws, quirks and heart who conveyed an almost Joycean humanity.

The narration becomes more effective as the separate scenarios weave together into a bittersweet love story and, one by one, the random props on the walls acquire significance. This process of course mimics life itself, and dovetails nicely with the urgent message behind all of the play’s linguistic and structural cleverness: That no matter how trivial and inadequate we believe ourselves to be, our lives matter. (If not entirely convinced, I'm more hopeful now.)

The cast is strongest when countering sentimentality with an understated wryness. Perhaps inevitably, by the end they have stopped resisting and things get a bit cloying and preachy, but not enough to cancel out the goodwill created by the unconventional script and graceful ensemble performance. 

“The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle.” Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 28. $25. (213) 351-3507 or www.sonofsemele.org. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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