There’s an old cliché about comedy and horror being the two hardest genres to write, because each one can end up too much like the other. Longacre Lea’s current double bill of two new works—a terrifyingly unfunny comedy and a goofily unfrightening scare story—is a great reminder that there is indeed truth in clichés.
Granted, the common theme for the two plays, disease, is a reliable inspiration for both genres. So it’s not so crazy to think such a combination would work well, particularly in the hands of Longacre Lea, a company specializing in the absurd, and its founder Kathleen Akerley, who’s tackled difficult-to-stage material before (e.g. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle). Akerley directs both plays and wrote the second, Bones in Whispers. That one works better, but it just isn’t that good either, and it mostly seems decent in comparison to the other.
That would be newcomer Miranda Rose Hall’s unwieldy How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, a comedy of the type that throws random gags at the audience and hopes something sticks. The story, insofar as there is one, involves a number of people with a communicable illness that turns their organs into guacamole. There are a lot of gags, and here’s the absolute best: “It’s not vegan to pick your nose and eat it.” It’s all downhill from there. Hall tries non sequiturs, deliberately bad puns, breaking the fourth wall, and that dreaded plague of bad theater, audience interaction. It’s a quantity-over-quality approach, akin to watching an early-career comedian try to figure out her best material on stage.
Bones in Whispers deserves credit for attempting something difficult to pull off: a horror-suspense sci-fi plot on a live stage. It’s even got a cool, post-apocalyptic setting—a group of people who survived a vaguely described pandemic are stuck in a hospital where weird shit starts happening.
Akerley doesn’t quite pull it off. The big reveal is a retread of every haunted house/hotel/spaceship movie ever made, and the result is unnecessarily complicated, weighed down with long monologues of exposition, and campy as all hell. Still, even when it’s predictable, audiences will find some intrigue in watching the doomed-from-the-start characters pair up to explore Hospital Don’t-Go-In-There.
The upside to a bad opening act is that the headliner shines all the brighter. The downside is that when both acts are nearly as long as a feature-length film (each one clocks in at 80 minutes), the crowd’s patience is bound to wear thin.
It’s too bad the production falls flat, because Longacre Lea’s actors throw themselves into the material with earnest enthusiasm. Most of the actors make appearances in both plays, but each script has different cast members in the leads. Tea Shearer is memorably over-the-top in the already over-the-top How We Died, and Alejandro Ruiz braves some awful pratfalls and worse dialogue for the sake of the craft.
It’s also too bad that this is the production to kick off this fall’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which premieres new works by female playwrights at 50 different companies. It’s a good endeavor deserving of an audience, if that audience hasn’t already fled in terror, and not in the way intended.
3801 Harewood Road, NE. $15–$20. longacrelea.org.