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'Reasons to Live' at Skylight: Wringing laughs from tragedy

'Reasons to Live' at the Skylight keeps laughs coming even amid tragedy

Since time immemorial, the plot device of a dead child has propelled drama from Iphigenia to Ibsen to “Rabbit Hole.” At a comfortably cathartic distance, audiences have thrilled to the unimaginable loss of a child. Yet in recent years, that particular gambit arguably has been cheapened through overuse.

In Meryl Cohn's comedy-drama “Reasons to Live,” a co-production of the Skylight and Open Fist theater companies now in its West Coast premiere at the Skylight, the motivating tragedy -- the accidental drowning of a toddler -- is revealed early on. It's a suspiciously expedient and dramatically rickety storyline that nonetheless supports an impressive weight of gallow's humor in Susan Morgenstern's crisp staging.

In the opening scene, Jane (Jessica Ires Morris), a former child star turned psychologist, is preparing for her nuptials at the home of her dotty, domineering mother, Stella (Judith Scarpone). Years of loss have not reconciled Jane to the death of her 2-year-old daughter, and her persistent pall deepens when her fiancé jilts her just hours before the ceremony.

However, at Stella’s insistence, the gathering takes place as planned. This rare family reunion includes Jane's agoraphobic and guilt-wracked brother, Andrew (Michael Cotter), Jane’s lesbian sister, Emily (Amanda Weier), their colorfully boozy Aunt Helen (Katherine Griffith), and Emily's New-Agey girlfriend, Heather (Jordana Berliner).

Then there’s Andrew's unlikely new love interest, Tara (Jennifer Schoch), who drops by to be inseminated (did we mention Andrew’s somewhat unusual cottage industry?) and is warmly welcomed into the wacky clan.

The humor is quintessentially Jewish. Call it Borscht Belt black comedy -- a lively and at times unlikely combination that regularly slips into silliness, sometimes delightfully so.

Cohn has a talent for aphorism, Morgenstern excels at pacing, and the facile cast keeps the laughs coming -- a tactic that not only richly entertains but also obscures the play's occasional shortcomings.

“Reasons to Live,” Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 30. $30. (213) 761-7061. Running time: 2 hours.

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