“Checkoff in the Sun,” a new play written by Leonard D. Goodisman and directed by Amy Baldwin, wants to talk about philosophy. At its most crowded, the small stage of the Eclectic Theater’s black box has nine different characters milling about in the show, and they all have an opinion. Ultimately, it seems that the show is less concerned about who’s right, and is more focused on how selfish and panicky people can get when faced with mortality (or any other problem).
“I know of and have experienced, in some fashion, several such gatherings where the impending death of an old friend or relative is central, and the expectation is that in this most serious of circumstances all pettiness will be put aside, only to find pettiness persists. In fact, pettiness usually rules, in the sense that people will always be who they are, and every moment in each person’s life is a moment in that person’s life and can only be treated as such,” Goodisman said of the inspiration behind the play.
Molly Blades leads the ensemble as Victoria, a middle-aged woman living with cancer and a poor prognosis. She decides to call a sort of enclave of her closest friends and family, ostensibly as a loving send-off but more realistically as the last chance that they’ll have to bury a veritable sack-full of hatchets that they’ve been carrying around for years. It doesn’t take long for everyone to start bickering and the arguments often take the form of twisty debates about socio-economic philosophy, the value of art, and the nature of responsibility.
This format creates a dissonance that never quite gets resolved. There’s a paradox in theater; we go plays to experience something that is overtly not real, but we often judge the value of a play by how capably it portrays real life and speech. “Checkoff in the Sun” exists to ask these big questions about life, death, and meaning, and it doesn’t want to do so on the sly. It’s true that people have abstract, philosophical conversations all the time; they have them over dinner, while sitting around drinking, while walking down the street, and while lying in bed. Scads of novels, plays, films and TV shows have depicted those moments countless times. The question is: do people have those conversations, let alone several of them in one afternoon, while crowded in a living room with a bunch of family and friends? The script suggests that they do, and the blocking suggests that they sometimes express themselves in miniature soliloquies facing the audience.
“Checkoff in the Sun” is at its strongest when the characters are talking plainly with one another or telling stories about compelling experiences from their pasts. The centerpiece scene of this sort is a funny, propulsive road trip story bandied between Victoria and her pill-addled, space cadet friend Judy (Kelly Goode), while the rest of cast act as an ad hoc peanut gallery pointing out inconsistencies and details that strain credulity. This scene does a great job of depicting Judy’s fixation on her youthful glory days with Victoria, her own selfish streak, and the unwillingness of anyone else to contain their jealousy over one another’s unique relationships.
The show isn’t as engrossing when the pure philosophy starts flying. William Phillips, who plays Victoria’s brother William, veers too close to “straw man” territory to be as effective and sympathetic as he needs to be. He’s a millionaire real estate attorney with a compulsive need to call things “childish,” so much so that it’s practically his catchphrase, and he usually stands in for all things “The Man” in the show. He’s crass about how much money he spent on dinner, openly decries the immobility of the middle class, and can’t help shooting everyone down for every flight of fancy. Reined-in and tightened up, William could be a great character, an objectively upper class guy who still sees himself as a skewed, oppressed middle class nobody, perhaps only because he doesn’t get any joy out of his feathered lifestyle. As he is on the page and on stage, William is a punching bag and a buzzkill.
It’s important to remember that “Checkoff in the Sun” is a new play sweating out its first run in a little, black box surrounded by construction machinery. This doesn’t lend itself to the flexibility the show needs to really make its points. Victoria sinks deeper into regret as the show progresses, dreaming of the artist life she never really pursued. She comforts herself with songs (and everyone tends to sing along with her), but they’re all standards of the cultural record like “On Top of Old Smokey” and “This Land is Your Land.” In the show’s shoestring context, it’s impossible to tell why Victoria chooses these songs. Maybe she’s lovably corny and a better mom than a singer, maybe she’s fundamentally unoriginal and never had the chops to be a working artist, or maybe “Checkoff in the Sun” at the Eclectic Theater just didn’t have the budget for anything outside of the public domain.
The show will run every weekend through April 19, and some time beyond the preview shows will be kind to it. It thrives on quippy dialog that bounces around like a pinball, so the tighter the cast gets in their delivery, the better. When it pops, the show lives up to its own subtitle of “a comedy about dying.”