At Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage, Death Tax Makes Dark Comedy of Dying Alone
Maxine is a well-to-do old widow living out her last days in a nice nursing home. Or is she dying a little sooner than she should be? She thinks so. Maxine believes her demise is being hastened by her inheritance-hungry daughter, who's in cahoots with the Haitian nurse, Tina. Deadline for Maxine's demise: January 1, when a new set of estate taxes kicks in.
Lucas Hnath's five-scene one-act Death Tax is winding up a run of a splendid production directed by René Moreno at Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage. The play sets up its simple premise with a sharp and efficient 10-minute spew of invective by Maxine. Portrayed with flinty-eyed grit and a roaring voice by Georgia Clinton, the old bird outlines her suspicions to Nurse Tina (Stormi Demerson), who stands by, expressionless. "Nurse Tina, I know that you are killing me," snarls Maxine. "A little extra morphine here and there."
Turns out, she's probably right. If Maxine, already ailing and hooked up to oxygen, buys the farm before New Year's, her daughter inherits an extra $200,000. Determined to keep living, Maxine strikes a deal with Tina: Keep her alive past "Auld Lang Syne" and she'll hand the nurse a hefty cash bonus. Tina needs the money. She's lost her son in a custody battle and wants to hire expensive lawyers to get him back from Haiti.
There's another player in the unfolding Faustian bargain. Todd, the nursing home administrator (played as a nervous schlemiel by John Forkner), is in love with Tina. He uses emotional blackmail to get her to promise him half the bonus if Maxine stays alive through January 1. If Tina doesn't agree, he'll fire her and turn her in for taking cash from a non compos mentis senior citizen.
But that's not all. Another plot thickener is stirred into this ethical stew when Maxine's daughter (Laurel Whitsett), long estranged from her difficult mom, tells Tina she doesn't want the inheritance anymore. She's written a letter that says as much and she entrusts it to the nurse, who tells Todd about it. He advises shredding it to keep their scam in play. (Another good character is nosy Nurse Toad, talked about but never seen.)
Oh, what a tangled web is woven in Death Tax, so dark and fast a comic farce it's hard to believe it wasn't translated from French. Hnath, an American playwright, cleverly covers many sides of a difficult social issue — what happens when Mama's money makes everyone greedy? — and he does it with witty spurts of dialogue and intriguing twists. Except for his last one.
The fifth and final scene in Death Tax feels like a reach, as if the playwright decided to make an editorial statement instead of just playing out his tight four-hander to some logical conclusion. Without giving all of it away, let's just say Maxine more than outlives her personal deadline. She also outlives her bank account. Being old, alone, unloved, unpleasant and un-moneyed, she's stuck in limbo, too ill to feel alive, not dead enough to bury and too poor to pay for first-rate care. Provocative stuff, but after four strong scenes of fairly frantic comedy, Hnath's dramatic downer of a conclusion taxes the play's credibility.
Count on director Moreno to stage every moment of it elegantly, however, and with no unnecessary flourishes. Moreno always brings out the best in actors (the ones who are good to start with, that is) and here he gets terrific performances from everyone. Demerson carries the play as the nurse, traversing scenic designer Bob Lavallee's gray, geometric nursing home rooms with heavy steps, burdened by worries. What a wonderful actress she is, the sort who listens so well to her fellow actors that when she turns to face the audience after one character's speech, her tear-stained cheeks shine under the lights.
Whitsett, playing the daughter, has the toughest job: portraying a character we're prepared by Maxine not to like. And then we do, as she pours her wounded feelings out to Tina. Pretty and tough, like a younger Debra Winger, Whitsett goes through a huge range of emotions in her short time onstage, all unforced, authentic and brilliantly rendered.
Death Tax's pay-off is in the performances, with minor deductions for the writing in that final scene.
A few words now about Amphibian's new home in a lovely space on Fort Worth's south side. The lobby is sleek and welcoming. The roomy black box theater, bisected for this show, features comfy seats and clear sight lines. Acoustics are pin-dropping perfect. Even the restrooms are nice (though no theater ever provides enough stalls to keep ladies from having to line up at intermish).
Coming up in Amphibian's 2014 season are some promising works, including the world premiere of Bank Job, a crime comedy by John Kolvenbach (February 6-March 2); Hunting and Gathering by Brooke Berman, a new comedy about the ins and outs of finding a great New York apartment (April 10-May 4); the regional premiere of The Nosemaker's Apprentice: Chronicles of a Medieval Plastic Surgeon by Nick Jones and Rachel Shukert (July 10-August 10); and Becky Mode's quirky solo comedy Fully Committed, about the employees and patrons of a tony Manhattan restaurant, starring Amphibian company member Carman Lacivita in all the roles. There are also staged readings of new plays throughout the year, including one by Death Tax playwright Lucas Hnath called A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, in which Walt reads aloud a screenplay about the city he's going to build that will change the world.
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