Theater : ‘Three Viewings’ Plays Parlor Games


In “Three Viewings,” Jeffrey Hatcher’s new play at South Coast Repertory, three unrelated characters deliver monologues in a funeral parlor. If this sounds like an exercise in Playwriting 101, you’re not far off the mark. The plots of each of these three playlets are as neatly wrapped up as a gift package prepared by an anal-compulsive.

That’s the bad news. There’s plenty of good news in this sprightly 90-minute evening as well. In writing character, Hatcher is well into the advanced seminar. In fact, his gifts are distinctive, unmistakable and quite a bit of fun to boot.

The first viewing is called “Tell-Tale,” a monologue by Emil, an undertaker at a funeral parlor in a small Midwestern town. Emil (Don Took) is a stock character in fiction, a man too shy to tell the woman he loves that he loves her, a Walter Mitty with a surprising wit (a trait all of Hatcher’s characters share, perhaps too closely).


Emil woos his love Tessie the only way he can. Peripherally. Tessie, you see, is a real estate agent, and she drums up business by mingling with the elders of the town at its wakes, to which the devoted Emil invites her. He stares at her and mouths, “I love you,” across a crowded room when she isn’t looking, hoping she’ll catch him doing it.

But this man with the mating instincts of a seventh-grader turns into Dorothy Parker when he observes a possible rival for Tessie’s affection. The rival, he notes, “looks like Paul Newman on sheep gland injections.” And as Emil’s professional ethics slip in his efforts to win Tessie, he opines with devilish insouciance, “It’s a slippery slope but passion is a bracing lubricant!”

Took gives a careful, appropriate performance, but a touch of idiosyncratic pathology would be welcome in this fastidious portrayal.

If “Tell-Tale” is a Sherwood Anderson short story, then “The Thief of Tears” is closer to Stephen King, complete with a boffo secret at the end. Nevermind that the secret is neither physically nor emotionally cogent. The bearer of the secret is Mac, who has renamed herself McTeague, presumably after the troubled hero of the Frank Norris novel. In a plucky portrayal by Hope Alexander-Willis, Mac is a slick vixen in a short black suit, but there’s something sad in her deeply hennaed hair, too-dark lipstick and overload of rings.

Mac is a coffin robber, a pretend mourner who can bend down to kiss the deceased goodbye and stand up with two ruby earrings in her closed mouth. Now she is at the wake of her own grandmother and there is a ring she desperately wants to steal to pay back an old injury. That secret alone would be enough for the short story that is this play, but Hatcher could not rest. He throws in the four-alarm surprise, in the manner of an Edgar Allan Poe, but without the surety.

While another finale-flourish embellishes the last playlet, “Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti,” in this one we get our most winning monologuist, winningly played by Bibi Besch. Virginia is a widow whose beloved though rascally husband has left her a mound of debts. She is approached by the bank, Ed’s own brother and a scary mobster, all of whom in their own not-uncertain and charmless way tell her they expect her to pay up.


The joy of this piece is not in its hat-trick ending, but in the telling of the story, a trick much harder to come by. Hatcher effortlessly tosses off great lines, great character names, and a charming and original character. He needs to trust more in the strength of his characters and perhaps in his audience as well.

Director David Emmes and set and lighting designers Tony Fanning and Lonnie Alcaraz have supplied a very focused, paced and manicured evening. They give Hatcher room to land every denouement with maximum effect. Next time, it would be great to see Hatcher land his story and also take flight as well.

* “Three Viewings,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 26. $26-$36. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 90 minutes.

Don Took: Emil

Hope Alexander-Willis: Mac

Bibi Besch: Virginia

A South Coast Repertory production. By Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by David Emmes. Sets Tony Fanning. Costumes Julie Keen. Lighting Lonnie Alcaraz. Sound Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora.