Monday, March 13, 2017

150. Review: THE GRAVEDIGGER'S LULLABY (seen March 11, 2017)

“Hush, Little Baby, Don't You Cry”

Playwright Jeff Talbott’s sensitive, nicely acted The Gravedigger’s Lullaby is deliberately vague about where and when it takes place but director Jenn Thompson’s nicely calibrated production for The Actors Company (TACT) brings to mind hardscrabble Appalachia during the Depression. Three of its four characters suggest the worn-down, washed-out, bleak-eyed folks seen in the photos of Dorothea Lange, a notion further heightened by Tracy Christensen’s unassuming costumes. These are terse, laconic people, who mostly speak in truncated sentences, but who are sometimes capable of lyrical expression.
KK Moggie, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan.
One is the hulking, downtrodden Baylen (Ted Koch), a decent slug with a soul as calloused as the hands he uses to scrape out a meager living digging graves.
KK Moggie, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan.
Then there’s his wraith-like, once-pretty wife, Margot (KK Moggie), who does other people’s laundry; desperate for a few extra pennies, she struggles to convince her reluctant husband to let her increase her load. This despite her need to care for their always crying newborn, whose noisy existence seems to grate on Baylen’s nerves, especially when it interferes with his sexual needs (reflected in a candid lovemaking scene).

And then there’s the coarse, roistering, brazen gravedigger Gizzer (Todd Lawson), a younger man who carries a sizable chip on his sturdy shoulder.

That chip grows bigger when a well-dressed young man, Charles Timmens (Jeremy Beck), shows up at the cemetery while Baylen and his buddy are at work, and asks for directions to the plot where his dying father is going to be buried. Gizzer, to Baylen’s dismay, begins to treat the visitor with snide disdain, not even caring if Charles reports his insulting behavior to his boss.

Gizzer’s father, you see, used to work for Charles’s wealthy father as a laborer and was killed on the job, with no help forthcoming from Timmens’s company to help the bereaved family. Ever since, Gizzer has been consumed with unmitigated hatred for the Timmens family.
Ted Koch, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan.
The conflict between the barely surviving gravediggers and the privileged Charles, momentarily sympathetic as he appears to be, reminds us of that between what we now call the 1% and the 99%. This, though, doesn’t seem Talbott’s purpose, which appears to be the revelation of how, even in the direst circumstances, love—here that between Baylen and Margot—can survive and even flourish. 
Jeremy Beck, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan.
There’s a glimmer of hope for Baylen when he manages to persuade Charles, who sees something of value in him, to give him a job, but there’s still Gizzer to worry about; sure enough, circumstances turn even sourer for Baylen and his wife when the downtrodden gravedigger, overwhelmed with self-loathing, cannot bear hearing his baby crying. What happens next delivers a swift kick to the audience’s guts but also taints the play with an unnecessary contrivance for the sake of a momentary dramatic effect.
Jeremy Beck, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan.
Wilson Chin’s set, a somewhat uncomfortable combination of naturalism and theatrical simplicity, moodily lit by Matthew Richards, shows a rundown cabin on a raised level at stage left. Its walls are little more than shabby curtains, its cramped quarters a perfect reflection of cramped lives. Attached is an undisguised ramp with an open, grave-like space, with another simple ramp leading to the stage floor. Although the grave is clearly artificial, it’s been filled with enough dirt to allow Baylen to shovel some of it out, albeit in notably meager portions. 
Ted Koch, KK Moggie. Photo: Marielle Solan.

Jenn Thompson’s staging honors the playwright’s intentions not to hurry scenes pervaded by silence and lack of activity.The actors are generally successful at underplaying, which accentuates the occasional outbursts of feelings that can’t any longer be repressed. Will Van Dyke’s music helps carry the rustic tone, and Lisa Kopitsky has nicely choreographed--apart from a few too obviously faked punches--an extensive fight scene between Gizzer and Baylen. 

Koch carries his sluggish body around as if he’s been doing nothing but digging graves all these years. He speaks in gravelly tones of quiet desperation contrasted with Moggie’s fortitude as his not-quite-yet defeated spouse. Lawson accurately portrays Gizzer’s anger as probably the man’s most sacred possession, something he holds on to as firmly as the shovel in his hand. And Beck’s Charles allows us to see a glimmer of humanity in his response to the others’ responses to him, although he also prepares us for the character’s darker reality.

The Gravedigger’s Lullaby is a minor genre piece that generally achieves what it sets out to do. If only that red herring didn’t swim into view toward the end.


Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 1