It's not an easy task to blend layers of comedy into a play dealing with impending death ? Bernard Slade probably best accomplished it in "Tribute" ? but Bryony Lavery certainly endeavors to pull it off with "Last Easter," now in its West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.
Lavery's four principal characters are close friends, all scratching for a living in one form or another in the theater, and one of them has contracted a particularly insidious form of cancer. Her demise is predestined, but the other three take it upon themselves to intercede. After all, what are friends for?
The playwright has fashioned a virtual chess game in which Director Richard Stein moves the living pieces around the board, describing rather than performing the play's events. It's an interesting device, devoid of scenery or props (think "Our Town" in the 21st century), but it's about an hour's worth of theater sketched onto a two-hour canvas, thanks in part to the frequent Pinteresque pauses in the dialogue.
The comedic touches are almost mandatory and provide a necessary balance. The three friends ? one Roman Catholic, one Jewish, one Buddhist ? employ their fairly rusty religious acumen in a bizarre life-affirming gesture culminating in a dunking at Lourdes (described, not depicted) that, predictably, is to no avail.
The centerpiece of "Last Easter," and its most impressive performer, is Helen Wassell as June, the cancer victim, who appears more resigned to her fate than any of her three companions. Wassell delivers a straightforward account of her debilitating condition, grimly resisting any Camille-like theatrics, and makes a lasting impression.
Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle probably is cringing in his crypt over the character created by his nephew, Kelly Mantle, as Gash, a highly cliched flaming drama queen who hatches potential lifesaving plots and drops a plethora of vintage jokes. Mantle's manic energy dominates the show, however.
Another broad stereotype, that of the boozy hedonist, is lustily delivered by Kirsten Chandler as Joy, whose sexual preferences encompass both sides of the street. Jay Skovec appears in a few wordless walk-ons as her ineffectual husband.
Yosefa Forma's Leah, involved in the designing of "Lion King"-like props, is the most grounded of the bunch, and henceforth the least showy. This, however, renders her character the show's most believable, despite a romantic attachment seemingly right out of left field.
The climax of "Last Easter" brings the play squarely into the sights of one of the most divisive of moral dilemmas and questions just how far true friends will stretch their consciences in the name of love. It's a throat-catching moment, splendidly enacted.
Despite some structural misgivings, "Last Easter" is a moving, involving play tempering deep trauma with flashes of humor and arresting performances in the Laguna production.dpt-titus-CPhotoInfoGP1QCMTQ20060428h3hei2kf(LA)cpt.28-titus-CPhotoInfoGP1QCMRH20060428iycscknc(LA)Helen Wassell, Jay Skovec, Kirsten Chandler, Yosefa Forma and Kelly Mantle in the West Coast premiere of 'Last Easter' by Bryony Lavery, directed by Richard Stein. At the Laguna Playhouse through May 21.