George Street Theater has been celebrating David Saint’s 10th year as artistic director, and to end the season Saint has chosen to present a world premiere, Elaine May’s new play, “Roger Is Dead.” With Elaine May as author it should come as no surprise that much of the dialogue is hilarious, and on occasion the audience laughs so hard that it becomes difficult to hear the actors.
The older members of the audience probably still associate May with Mike Nichols and their extremely funny improvised routines, but “Roger Is Dead” is described as “a comedy about grief,” which should serve as a partial warning to the audience.
One of the problems with the play is that it moves, in what often appears to be a somewhat random way, from serious, even tragic, situations to very funny one-liners. It is as if May, who also serves as director, had not decided whether she was writing a play that would make the audience think or a play that would simply make the audience laugh. One could also look at it as an unpleasant play with witty lines.
Of the seven members of the cast, only two are minor parts, the Old Woman, haughtily played by Patricia O’Connell, and the funeral director, Wesley Broulik. The central character is Carla Kerns, a physical therapist, wonderfully played by Julia Brothers, who has to deal with a politically active left-wing school teacher husband, Michael Kerns, who seems to have stepped out of another world, or perhaps just another time. Although he may be concerned with human dignity and political oppression in the large, he acts as if his beliefs have no relevance to his personal life.
The Roger of the title is played by Tom Bloom, a veteran of many major Broadway, Off Broadway, and regional theater productions. Roger is a very wealthy right-wing Republican, and his one scene takes place in the back seat of a limousine. He is being driven to the airport to fly his own plane out to Colorado for an afternoon of skiing. He may be disrupting other people’s lives, but this is how he wants to spend the afternoon, and so this is what he does. Roger engages in amiable conversation with the Hispanic driver, Freddie, played by Carmen LaCivita. Playing a scene in the interior of a limousine is something of a tour de force, made more amusing by LaCivita’s dexterity in showing what he thinks of Roger’s off-the-wall existence and political remarks without making it obvious.
Roger’s wife is Doreen, played by Marlo Thomas, whose entrance drew a round of applause. Doreen is a classic ditz brain and elicits many a laugh from her total lack of any sense of how most people get from point A to point B. And having grown up in a wealthy household, protected from the world outside by a doting governess (Carla’s mother, identified in the program as the Old Woman), she also never learned how to deal with the practicalities of life. Nor does she seem to see any reason to change that; it’s the obligation of others to look after her.
After learning of Roger’s death in a skiing accident, she creeps to Carla and Michael’s house, expecting that someone there will take care of her. Carla and Michael don’t have a spare bedroom, and Doreen is, perhaps surprisingly, content to sleep on the couch, but she expects the Kerns to bring their one tv set in for her to watch. And of course she sees no reason why she should have to deal with the funeral home that is trying to make arrangements to take care of Roger’s body and set up his funeral.
The set, designed by R. Michael Miller, is one of the attractions of the evening. It shows the furnished interior of a comfortable apartment with spaces that represent the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. When a good-sized limousine is needed, one rolls conveniently in through a back window. Costumes are by Michael Sharpe and Devon Painter, lighting by Phil Monat, and sound by Carl Casella.
“Roger Is Dead” may not be the most coherent play George Street has produced, but it will probably be popular. Perhaps May will look at it again and find a way to make it more structurally satisfying without sacrificing its humor.
Roger Is Dead, through Sunday, May 11, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, www.gsponline.org. Marlo Thomas stars in comedy written and directed by Elaine May. $28 to $64. 732-246-7717.