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Play Review: Dead Lawyers by George Larkin

Something a little different today.

The master of the revels despises us as peddlers and purveyors of bombast,

But my father was granted the first license to open a public theatre company from her majesty, the Queen. And he drew from poets the literature of the age.

Richard Burbidge – Shakespeare in Love

Literature – that’s a good word to describe George Larkin’s work. Larkin has been a lifelong literature and theatre student. At Deerfield Academy, he breezed through the school’s legendary English Department, racking up A after solid A. After excelling at Yale, even by Yale’s lofty standards, he went on to study at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-on-Avon. He’s also worked extensively in the film and TV industries. A rising star of a writer, he blends his boundless mastery of literature with a street-smart comedic wit, rapier-sharp critique, and touching philosophical observations without preaching or screeching. He has a smooth, well-polished delivery and an observant eye. Moreover, when needed, he’s uproariously funny.

Dead Lawyers is vintage Larkin. Part whodunit murder mystery, part social critique of the banality and moral vacuity that is the practice of law, Larkin produced a madcap, laugh-a-minute romp, that also – subtly – provides good old fashioned common sense counterpoint to the bad behavior and insensitive attitudes that have sadly become woven into our social fabric.

Briefly, a group of vacationing lawyers (and one depressed social worker), arrive at their Hampton time share to discover a dead body, a suicide note, and sensitive legal documents. Mix in “the storm of the century,” a closed bridge trapping them in the immediate vicinity, mistaken identities, and plenty of suspicion, and the paranoid, domineering characters quickly devolve into gibbering idiots.

Enter the EndTimes Production team, the cast, and director Matthew Kreiner. The cast features at least one breakout star, (perhaps two or three), and good performances through the line-up. Well blocked, the cast runs around zanily in a small space, but smoothly makes it feel a lot bigger. While there were a few sound glitches early, the performance proceeded cleanly and crisply, which is important because so many characters do so many things at the same time in Larkin’s rich screenplays. Occasionally, you need two heads to follow the action on opposite ends of the stage. Overall, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts without being outlandish, overdone, or overacted. Let’s meet the actors:

Although diminutive Josh Hyman is built like a fire hydrant with legs, he delivers a performance as large as Yao Ming. As Douglas, a wisecracking, oily, overly-litigious, arrogant lawyer, Hyman is the wheel that turns the performance. His role is critical: he’s both comic relief, (delivering one hysterical zinger after another), and a suspect. Delivering us a lawyer that’s half Joe Pesci and half George Kostanza, (at one point, he sounds exactly like the hapless Seinfeld nerd, shouting, “Sorry for bothering you people again, but I’m the man bleeding to death in the bathroom, and I would very much appreciate it if you would get me some medical attention in here!”), he is the sturdy backbone of the cast. At many points in the performance, he delivers his lines from off-stage, yet you can clearly hear every word.

That shows you how good Hyman is: he’s a breakout star and half his lines (and most of his skewers), are delivered from behind a bathroom door.

Complimenting Hyman well, Leal Vona and Matthew Watkins – respectively, a lawyer who hires someone to kill his fiancé, and a manic, struggling actor who agrees to be his hatchet man – provide rock solid support with zany, colorful portrayals of their hyperactive, yet hapless characters. Watkins is a man with a thousand faces playing a role with a thousand facets. First posing as the dead woman’s fiancé in Vona’s place, he convinces you he’s a maudlin loser. Then, as the actor-turned-ersatz-killer, he erupts into a hilarious send-up of the stereotypical insecure, yet egotistical and seedy acting wannabee. (“I’m in Cymbaline next week!” he boasts.)

Vona, in turn, gets more uproariously funny with each line as his plans to have his fiancée’s murder look like a suicide fall apart around him, and his role in the planned murder is discovered. His chemistry with Watkins percolates energetically throughout their shared scenes, and they never fail to deliver laughs in their characters’ frenetic struggle to one-up each other.

Anthony Mead is the sleeper star of the ensemble. Fighting depression and thoughts of suicide, this social worker is the sensible voice of the everyman. Exploring a wide range of feelings, love, fear, bravery, and frustration, he also moves seamlessly into whatever emotion Larkin asks of his character. Even Larkin was impressed, “Anthony showed me a side of the character I never saw anyone else bring to the forefront. It was really interesting watching him.”

Two women round out the small ensemble. Serena Miller plays the philosophical but deeply troubled lawyer who contemplates suicide, but is instead targeted for death by her fiancée. Miller is a talented actor with a beautiful, rich voice, and she delivers her lines with an ornate, experienced polish, but she spoke too softly during the first act. Moreover, she frequently spoke too fast as well, and occasionally mumbled. Too often, we just couldn’t hear her, especially during the first scene.

That being said, she has a tough role which she handles well. In Act I, her “shade” recites passages from the diary that portray her as a forsaken soul, but in Act II, as a living breathing character that interacts with the rest of the cast, she becomes as Machiavellian a schemer as anyone else, spiking several drinks in the process. “She handles the duality of the role well,” said Matt Kreiner, her director. “She nails both sides of a deep and complex character.”

Finally, tall drink of water, Kerstin Porter, plays a ditzy tax lawyer trying to make sense of all the furniture throwing, knife-wielding, drink-drugging mania erupting around her. Porter got stronger as the performance went on. She has a high pitched voice, so she, like Miller, needs to slow down and concentrate on her diction. This will also help smooth out her delivery.

That being said, she is also as solid an actress as Miller. Much of the action runs through her and there’s no question she has the chops to handle it once she slows down just a tad. Here’s a great example of Porter doing the little things right: when another cast member who was on the floor feigning injury had a much-needed prop out of reach, Porter deftly heel-passed it to him in perfect stride walking across the stage. There’s a lot more to being a good actor than just reciting your lines, you know.

In fact, the whole cast shines that way: they do the little things right and work smoothly and confidently with each other. Throughout the entire production, you couldn’t help but get the impression that they had worked together for a long time. Maybe it’s because the screenplay is so much fun, maybe it’s because the physical comedy is so silly, maybe it’s because the all like each other, but whatever it is, their togetherness was palpable and enjoyable. The audience felt it as well. “They seemed to have so much fun in every scene,” said Jennifer Richman, an audience member from Williamsburg.

Even stage disasters fail to daunt them. Watkins finished one performance with a broken finger. As one scene ended, it got caught in a folding chair and was mangled in a twist of metal and flesh. He shrugged it off and finished the show.

“I didn’t know it was broken at the time,” he explains mildly. Then his eyes bug, and he adds, “I knew it hurt, though.”

Hey, the show must go on. You gotta love that attitude.

Screenplay – 6.5 stars (all ratings out of 7) – Larkin dots every “I,” and crosses every “t” in his stage directions, develops characters cleanly, and winds plot twists deftly. If there is one tiny drawback, the plot line involving the legal documents needs just a little more backstory and exposition to be perfectly smooth.

Acting – 6 stars – While diction and delivery need some polish, the cast is eager, hard working, energetic, intelligent, and works well together. As they become more comfortable in their roles and as they think about more sincere and convincing delivery, the dialogue will improve even more. Nevertheless, in a slapstick comedy such as this, where chemistry is critical, they soar.

Directing – 5.5-6 stars – Matt Kreiner seemed to have as easy a time managing the actors as Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has with his talented team: just let ’em go and have fun and they’ll do just fine. Larkin’s stage directions are so detailed and well planned, little tinkering or interpretation is needed. After all, he was trained at the Shakespeare Institute. Would you correct his stage notes? Moreover, Kreiner successfully gets the characters to negotiate a lot of action in a tight space without any glitches. The opening scene needs some polish, but other than that, he did fine. The energy is superb, and the morale of the cast is running high.

Overall – 6 stars – At $18, the show is a good bargain and a fun evening. Go to the early show to get home by midnight, the late show will kick off your all-nighter with a smile.

Running through November 2, performances are Wednesdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 10 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m.

EndTimes Theatre is located at 24 Bond Street, on the NE corner of Lafayette.

Click here for the official website.