Tuesday, October 15, 2019

90 (2019-2020): Review: GEORGIA MERTCHING IS DEAD (seen October 14, 2019)

"On the Road Again"

Instead of all those annoying titles that think it clever to use only lower case letters, most recently runboyrun, Catya McMullen’s GEORGIA MERTCHING IS DEAD insists on using all caps. The play itself is sometimes loud—to the point of yelling—but it definitely doesn’t call for headlines. 

The few critics who’ve commented on it thus far have had more or less positive reactions, but I found myself unmoved, incredulous (to use an au courant word), bored even, and—apart from a few good zingers—unable to find it as amusing as did many others in the audience. 
Diana Oh, Layla Khoshnoudi, Claire Siebers. All photos: Jeremy Daniel.
The three, self-involved women, in their early 30s, who form the play’s nucleus are having dinner at a restaurant when an email informs them that Georgia Mertching, the sponsor (and former addict) who helped them kick drugs when they were teens, has hung herself, leaving her husband and a six-week-old baby behind. These women, whose ongoing recoveries have fused their friendship, have survived—they even sponsor other users—but many others they know died of overdoses. They decide to drive to North Carolina from New York to attend Georgia’s funeral.

Their car belongs to Emma (Claire Siebers, intense), an unmarried, successful, sexually overactive, emotionally insecure writer with mom issues. She shares the driving with Whitney (Layla Khosnoudi, quirky), a lesbian, also unsure of herself, who’s just quit her job as a chef, and is weird enough to have built a urination device for Gretchen. Gretchen (Diana Oh, expansive), in the back seat, is the married, potty-mouthed mother of a kid with a butt fixation. She looks like she’s about to pop any minute, her belly so big she could be the next octomom.  
Layla Khoshnoudi, Diana Oh, Claire Siebers.
As the narratively flat drive down South proceeds, the women share a yada-yada barrage of remembered love affairs, sexual encounters, and other personal detritus. Much of what humor there is either childishly scatological or naughtily erotic, like “Who’s the oldest person you’d have sex with?” (Even Gretchen’s husband’s texts are preoccupied with sex and poop.)
JD Taylor, Diana Oh.
Over the course of  90 minutes, there’s also a lot of thematic chatter about friendships versus family and marriage. Various clich├ęd experiences bring the friends together, tear them apart, and bond them together again, more closely than before.
Layla Khoshnoudi, Diana Oh, Claire Siebers.
Gretchen and her husband, Jeremy (JD Taylor), who live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, need the time to look at a Connecticut house they may be buying. Jeremy insists she not go to the funeral in her condition but she defies him, a decision that may have some momentary dramatic merit but, as anyone with a half a brain knows, is senseless from a practical perspective. Sure enough, the play proceeds to demonstrate this, albeit unsatisfactorily.
Layla Khoshnoudi.
Credulity is thus strained along with any sympathy for Gretchen, whose behavior otherwise doesn’t go a long way to making us admire her. Given to descriptive dialogue about female parts and hemorrhoids, she unconvincingly turns eloquently contemplative when delivering Georgia’s eulogy. There are multiple other such moments, as when Whitney, having stopped off at a trailer park she once lived in, talks to a tree.
Diana Oh.
Mack truck-like contrivances keep coming down the road, like Emma’s reuniting in North Carolina with a handsome ex, a filmmaker named Harlan (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the pretentious kind who can’t bear when Emma says “movie” instead of “film.” When, standing in a graveyard, the couple let old tensions flame into hormone-stimulating anger, you know exactly where this train is headed.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Siebers.
And the scenes, inevitably, when car troubles appear on the road back home, only confirm what you’ve been expecting all along. Whatever incredulity you’ve been feeling here rises to the plane of exasperation.  

Alexis Distler’s multipurpose set, efficiently lit by Cat Tate Starmer, encompasses both interiors and exteriors, consisting of dark-toned walls that allow props or wall hangings to identify specific locales. Since much of the action takes place on the road, there’s a central section that opens to reveal two rows of car seats, backed by the unchanging image of a rural highway.
Claire Siebers, Diana Oh, Layla Khoshnoudi.
Giovanna Sardelli (Finks, one of my fondest EST memories) provides crisp staging, at one point introducing a clever sequence of film-like jump cuts, with blackouts and rock music helping to move quickly from one tableau to another. She hasn’t found a way, though, to deal technically with a prop car lacking seatbelts or to cover for why Gretchen has to go through all sorts of contortions squeezing her baby boulder into the rear seat, as if cars with movable front ones for just such situations hadn’t been invented.

GEORGIA MERTCHING IS DEAD isn’t as far gone as the person in its title, but it survives more because of infusions from its able cast than from the nutrients in its dramatic bloodstream.

Ensemble Studio Theatre
545 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through October 27