It’s about time somebody revisited Bruce Jay Friedman’s “Steambath.” First produced off-Broadway in 1970 and recycled as a television film in ’73, the play was hailed as a piquant black comedy — the genre exploited by the likes of Friedman, Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Southern, whose surface satires were underscored by bitter social commentary.
The years may have somewhat blunted the subversive nature of the play, but in its current incarnation at the Odyssey, “Steambath” still succeeds as comic entertainment, and director Ron Sossi keeps the momentum rolling in a briskly paced production that plays but never panders for laughs.
The action is set in a steambath in the afterlife – an appropriately steamy milieu impeccably realized by scenic designer Gary Guidinger, lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang and sound designer Christopher Moscatiello. It’s here that the dead — some of whom may not realize they are actually deceased — gather to bicker, swap stories and, of course, enjoy a good schvitz before being compelled through a mysterious and dreaded door to an unknown destiny.
The unlikely God presiding over this otherworldly waiting room is a Puerto Rican janitor (Paul Rodriguez — Peter Pasco will play the role through Nov. 18 while Rodriguez is in Japan and South Korea entertaining the troops), who uses the steambath as a staging area where he orders various fates — from the deadly to the negligible – to befall the earthbound. But it’s the very arbitrariness of those decisions that are getting on the last nerve of new arrival, Tandy (Jeff LeBeau), who not only doubts the Godly nature of this dubious deity but is convinced that his death is a cosmic mistake.
Modern sensibilities may rankle at a couple of outdated characters – the gorgeous, dim blond (Shelby Lauren Barry) and the mincing young gay guys (DJ Kemp, Devan Scheolen). However, it should be noted that everyone in the play is rendered with the same comedic broadness; if viewed as an aggregate of equal opportunity stereotypes, the play will be less likely to offend.
John Moskal is a particular standout as a gruff old-timer whose emotional final scene is a real heart-tugger.
Dry and effectively offhand, Rodriguez anchors the show with a bracing naturalism that underscores its surreal aspects. And although the decades may have reduced the thematic impact of “Steambath,” its undiminished cheekiness is a welcome distraction in dark times.