You heard it here first: death is in. That's right. Of course, that most universal of universal themes has been "in" for about as long as humans have been able to contemplate their own existence, but with recent shows such as Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die last year at Joe's Pub and Chris Tanner's The Etiquette of Death, currently playing at La Mama, it is clear that we are still working through this topic.
Tanner's musical is a special brand of camp somewhere in between Hairspray and a John Waters film, and the catchy music and engaging concept are entertaining and thought provoking. However, the musical's first act needs to be pruned a bit, and I believe that some of the sub-plots distract from the main story. Also, talented performers Chris Tanner (who plays Joan Girdler), Everett Quinton (Death), Greta Jane Pederson (Isis), and Brandon Olson (Joey Girdler) have some strong supporting actors, but there are some weak links along the line that keep the show from reaching its fullest potential.
The main storyline follows Joan Girdler (Tanner), a sort of overdone housewife who sells Etiquette Cosmetics, and her son Joey (Olson) who is dying of AIDS. Joan decides to take advantage of the fact that Death (Quinton) really loves her cosmetic line, which she uses as a bargaining chip to try to save her son. This is all done with the help of several backup dancers and a chorus of pigeons. Also, the songs are catchy, witty and hummable, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
Here comes the part that is harder to parse out. From the minute the show begins there are a series of scenes that have nothing to do with this major plot trajectory. Thought this is not necessarily a problem, the total effect leaves the play a bit scattered at times. Part of what makes describing what did and did not work for me is that one of my favorite scenes of the play is one of these unrelated moments.
At one moment two middle aged women talk about their friends' recent deaths. Jacky (Beth Dodye Bass) and Holly (Robert Appleton) are a voracious eater and a drunk, respectively, who had the crowd howling with their fantastic comic timing. Yet this vignette, though related to the overall theme of "death" has no direct bearing on the story of Joan and Joey, or even the story of Death herself. At other moments in the play some seemingly unconnected stories did end up coming back around. Structurally, it would be stronger if there were either many more of these detached, but thematically related vignettes or if they all directly connected to the major plot.
I just want to take a second to applaud one overarching aspect of this production. Tanner's writing and performance along with Quinton's direction and performance combine to establish a beautifully nuanced type of drag throughout the production. Of course the piece is campy, but this is not caused by the fact that men are sometimes dressed as women, which is a fine line. I'm pointing this out specifically because it is important to recognize when a production does something so seamlessly that people might forget to comment on it. In The Etiquette of Death there is a camp of style and ideas, and even perhaps of gender stereotypes, but the characters, especially the leads, are all three dimensional people.
So it is that The Etiquette of Death is a good show with the seeds of greatness inside. You might have noticed that I haven't said much about etiquette. Though it is present in the play, I see this more as a story about learning to let go than about etiquette. Indeed the final song, with a strikingly similar message to Young Jean Lee's aforementioned play, reminds us that "we're all gonna die." Through humor, through song, and through pure storytelling, this show will make you think about death in a different way. One that just might be to die for.