Angel Feud

Life is short and sweet, savor every minute. So says the message of The Living End, a quartet of charming yet provocative mini-musicals about life and death now on view at Lyric Stage in Irving. No, life stinks, according to the new Risk Theater Initiative show at the Bath House Cultural Center. It's nothing but a long and tedious trudge toward hell, accompanied by the screams of angry angels and the stench of human suffering. Or maybe that's just how it seems during the two long hours of Jose Rivera's apocalyptic Marisol, a play that unfolds with the subtle themes and artistic elegance of napalm at a garden party.

The Living End is the one to see, a breezy, life-affirming evening of musical theater full of good-natured gibes and pleasant, if conventional, story-songs. Under direction by Cheryl Denson, a large cast of good singers and facile comic actors whips through four short new musicals, two of which are based on well-known stories. Each segment--none longer than 30 minutes, one only 12--offers a fresh perspective on how mere mortals approach the afterlife. It's a sweet little production, the only weak point being the bare-bones musical accompaniment--Gary Okeson on piano and Rick Norman on an inaudible bass--which makes for a thin sound from the pit.

The opener is Woman With Pocketbook, about a cheerful, middle-class mom who refuses to enter heaven if she has to give up her trusty designer handbag. Like airport security with gossamer wings, the angels on the welcoming squad insist she hand over the purse at the pearly gates, but Doris Platt (the florid and unflagging Deborah Brown) won't do it. Her bag is her identity, she protests, filled with the beloved flotsam and jetsam of her life, from her extra set of dentures to her collection of cents-off coupons. "If I should see a pigeon, here's a little bag of bread," she sings. "Why should I be different just because I'm dead?...This you're calling heaven? I've been totally misled."

Her own dead mother (the Nancy Walker-like Ada Lynn) can't persuade Doris, victim of a freak mah-jongg accident, to lose the Louis Vuitton. But with the arrival of husband Dave (Jerry Russell), Doris starts to realize that she really can't take it with her. With music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, book and lyrics by Annie Kessler and Libby Saines, Woman With Pocketbook mines good stuff from its metaphor about the useless baggage we carry through life.

Precious Little Jewel, also by Blumenkrantz and Saines, was inspired by Kate Chopin's timeless piece of short fiction "The Story of an Hour." Louise (power-singer Mary Gilbreath), a wife in early-20th-century New Orleans, collapses upon learning that her husband, Albert, has been killed in a train crash. In just three songs, Louise goes from shock to grief to a sudden burst of liberating giddiness, realizing that at last she's out from under the thumb of the cruel, controlling husband who treated her like a collectible. The surprise ending leaves the audience gasping.

After intermission comes a musical romp through The Ransom of Red Chief, updated (with jokes about Donald Trump) from the funny old O. Henry story about the little rich kid so rotten his own parents won't pay kidnappers for his return. Jerry Russell plays Sam, the grifter looking to cash in by snatching Johnny (Jordan Graf) off the streets of New York. Mary Gilbreath and Brian Patrick Hathaway are the mom and dad desperate for time away from the brat. Sam gets stuck entertaining the squirming monster with whom, it turns out, he gets along just fine. There's a touch of Rodgers and Hart in the bouncy tunes by Brad Alexander and playful lyrics by Helen Chayefsky. And before the Amber Alert goes out, everything ties up nicely in the end, with Johnny (and Sam) returning home safe and sound.

The last chapter of The Living End is a beaut, clocking in at just 12 minutes but saying more about the human equation than other shows do in 120. The Life and Times of Joe Jefferson Benjamin Blow, book, music and lyrics by Andy Monroe, pays tribute to a little guy with a big heart. The title character, played with goofy panache by Brian Patrick Hathaway, sounds like George Bailey of It's a Wonderful Life as he swears, "I'm going to do great things/I'm going to see the world." But he doesn't. He ends up a vacuum cleaner salesman, married to the girl next door, father of three. Time goes by in a blink. One minute he's 21, the next he's retiring. Then he's dead. "I feel like I was born just minutes ago," he says, when in fact for us he was. After Joe Blow goes to the great beyond, he has to be reassured that his life wasn't wasted, that "sometimes great things can happen on a smaller scale."

That includes musical theater.

Then there's Marisol. Everything The Living End says about the beauty of life, this show, directed by Marianne Galloway, refutes. It starts with the title character (played by newcomer Elizabeth Sankarsingh) getting a bedside visit from her guardian angel (Octavia Y. Thomas). God has gone "senile," says the angel. The "universal body" is sick and the earth "is running a temperature." So the angels are leaving heaven to declare war.

Things get really grim after that. Amid much pointless screaming and badly executed stage fighting, sad little Marisol wanders through a trash-strewn, plague-ridden area of The Bronx looking for her missing friend (Christie Shane) whose creepy brother Lenny (Chad Gowen Spear, overacting like he's being paid by the shriek) is some kind of psychotic stalker. They blurt cryptic nonsense: "The Visigoths are climbing the city walls" and "In Van Cortland Park perverts are fondling snowmen." Somebody says, "Go ahead and kill yourselves with your crack and your promiscuity and your homo-anal intercourse."

A Nazi goosesteps onto the set, splashes gasoline on a homeless guy and sets him on fire. (If only they'd done that with the script.) Marisol has to kiss a guy with no face. Lenny, spouting references to Taxi Driver, appears in a dress with a swollen belly and goes through painful and very noisy mock-labor to give birth to a bloody doll that they spend 20 minutes burying. Between explosions, the guardian angel comes back in full battle gear, carrying an assault weapon.

It's like watching Left Behind: Live.

On and on it goes, dialogue dribbling out in curdled gobs of absurd commentaries on credit card companies, the publishing industry, environmentalists and anything and everything to do with New York City post-September 11. Playwright Jose Rivera is one sick puppy. He needs to stop typing and re-up his Prozac prescription. Life, even in The Bronx, just isn't this terrible. Marisol makes 'Night, Mother look like L'il Abner. As entertainment it ranks somewhere alongside deep vein thrombosis.