By John Quinn
Good grief: Detroit Rep stages world premiere of humorist’s first comedy
The Detroit Repertory Theatre opens its 46th season with the professional premiere of humorist Esther Blumenfeld’s first play, “Here and There.” To avoid the euphemisms lampooned in the production, that’s “here” as in “alive,” and “there” as in “dead.”
This is a play that asks the question, “Can grief be funny?”
Our central character, Becca, is still dealing with the death of her husband, Aaron. Helping her get on with life are their long-time friends Sherlyn and Teddy, and Becca’s adult son Josh. Also around, as both help and hindrance, is the “ghost” of Aaron, clad in the shirt, shorts and sneakers he had asked to be buried in. The costuming is important, because a lot of the play is told through flashback; we need visual cues to anchor the time. Aaron in long pants – alive; Aaron in shorts – dead, a memory.
Of note is the professional stage debut of television news anchor Amyre Makupson. Detroit Rep stalwarts Milfordean Luster and Herman McCain join her as Sherlyn and Teddy. Fresh to the DRT stage is Jeff Thomakos, rounding out the cast as Josh. Under the direction of DRT artistic director Bruce Millan, this affable bunch brightens Ms. Blumenfeld’s pleasant characters.
The structure of the script can cause some problems. One might find himself at the intermission, asking, “Is this going anywhere?” The play almost seems a series of anecdotes rather than a fluid whole; the meaning can be lost if you don’t listen carefully to Becca’s opening monolog. The living have trapped, as it were, Aaron’s spirit in the easy chair, center stage left, a chair in which no one else sits.
This is not so much a play about grief as it is about “letting go.” But rather than an evolution of emotion, we have the whole plot resolved in the last few minutes of the play.
One senses that Ms. Blumenfeld is pulling out favorite material to bring a note of fun to a serious subject. She is, after all, the co-author of “The Smile Connection: How to Use Humor in Dealing with People” and was humor columnist for magazines like “Accent on Homes” and “Living Magazine.” Much of the humor, though, doesn’t flow naturally from the situation, but is layered onto the plot like icing on a cake. And like icing, the contrivance can be a bit thick at times, almost cloying.
Some of the bits are on target, though. More lines like Aaron’s first act question, “Would it help if I told you if the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me?” would have been a welcome change from the seemingly endless riffs on oxymorons.
No, I’m not calling you names; that’s the term for internally inconsistent phrases – “jumbo shrimp” being one of the favorites. I’m betting they’re a specialty of the playwright’s.
Here and There Presented Thursday through Sunday at Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit, through Dec. 28. Tickets: $17. 313-868-1347. www.detroitreptheatre.com.
The Bottom Line: This amusing little piece gives a whole new meaning to “undying friendship.”