When I say that Noah Haidle’s comedy Vigils is all about death and the pain of loss, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s either wan or wistful. Few comedies of any stripe can incorporate so effortlessly into their action a striptease, aerial somersaults, mention of an orthodontist who hates teeth, and a dance sequence featuring a widow who performs music-video moves not just with her current boyfriend but also with her dead hubby’s body—and with the hubby’s equally animated soul.
Wan, Vigils most certainly is not. Wistful? Well, maybe a little, but only toward the end. For most of its length, Haidle’s antic romp is as exuberant, and far funnier, than any play about letting go of a dead spouse has any right to be.
And letting go is definitely what a fireman’s Widow, played at once common-sensically and with a touch of hysteria by Naomi Jacobson, has not found the strength to do. She still has all his clothes in the closet, all her memories in her head, and his Soul (Michael Russotto) locked in her hope chest. This last is a little awkward, so she lets him out now and then for a hug and a chat.
“It’s been two years since you died,” she says a tad defensively, letting him know that despite his presence, she’d really like to get on with her life and start dating again. There’s just one problem. “I don’t think I can make small talk any more,” she moans.
“So make big talk,” says the Soul, before coaxing her to answer the door on which a nervous Wooer (J. Fred Shiffman) is knocking. She does, and the wooing begins, with the Soul kibitzing from the sidelines.
Then, at about the moment you’re figuring the playwright has simply stolen a page from the Six Feet Under playbook, Haidle lets you know that he won’t be following TV’s rules of ghostly engagement.
“Can we talk about this not in front of your husband’s soul?” wonders the Wooer. “It’s freaking me out.”
Now, it’s hard to describe how disorienting that moment is at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. It’s explosively funny, of course. But it also flies in the face not just of physics but of a stage logic we think we understand. Spirits in the theater generally behave in predictable ways so they can be distinguished from the more material folks with whom they’re interacting. Here, though, there’s no trick lighting, no eerie music, no flying through the air (at least, not yet). Colette Searls’ wildly inventive staging employs all those devices, just not to delineate who’s real and who’s a spirit. To do that, you just have to listen to the small talk and big talk emanating from folks corporeal and non-.
So, what’s an audience to make of a world where conventions realistic, romantic, domestic—hell, even telepathic—don’t seem to apply? Well, Haidle suggests that we simply learn some new conventions, even though as quickly as we do, he’s going to change them. He advances the wooing of the Widow—a process by turns hilarious and plausibly uncomfortableÔªø—in more or less realistic terms, while simultaneously chronicling the escape attempts of the Soul (who’d very much like to get on with his afterlife) with magical skyhooks and ropes made of soiled bedsheets.
Just to keep the audience on its toes, he also plots an arc of flashbacks to moments both crucial (hubby’s death in a fire, and the unresolved argument he and his wife had just a few minutes earlier) and not-so-crucial (hubby jerking off, and the small talk he made with his wife on their first date in high school). For the flashbacks, the others are joined by the husband’s Body (Matthew Montelongo), who gets into nearly as many arguments with his Soul as he does with his Widow—all of which, trust me, is significantly less confusing than it probably sounds.
Funnier too. The playwright has a knack for upending your every expectation with a punch line. And even when he doesn’t supply one, the performers get laughs with attitude and inflection. Jacobson’s Widow is a creature of lightning mood shifts, smiles fading in mid-syllable, eyes brightening with hope even as she’s descending into an anxiety attack. That Shiffman’s frantic romantic can even keep up with her makes him tremendously appealing, and as often as not, he’s way ahead of her. Montelongo and Russotto are amusingly twinned, the former an alive, but decidedly dim, bulb—“I am syphilis” he declares, meaning Sisyphus—the latter altogether dead but with a very lively intellect. There’s also a Child, whose part in the plot I probably shouldn’t give away, but whose interpreter, Connor Aikin, is one of the most natural, relaxed young actors I’ve seen on any stage.
Daniel Ettinger’s ÔªøÔªøsetting—a gray-on-gray room capable of bursting into flame when Colin K. Bills’ Ôªølighting flares red or of turning transparent when lit from behind—has enough trap doors that if Searls wanted to, she could stage a postmodern Noises Off on it. As often as not, though, the actors eschew the doors to exit through walls, windows, and hope chests while attired in fashions fashioned wittily by Kate Turner-Walker.Ôªø When a show about death and transfiguration gets laughs with a cummerbund, you have to figure it’s on a roll.Ôªø
That said, Haidle still has a little work to do if we’re to understand a choice his leading lady makes in the play’s final moments. The Soul and the Body eventually add up to a coherent character, and the Wooer is a persuasively complex guy almost from the first. But the Widow, whose antics are so funny, and whose problem-solving acumen is so engaging as she’s wrestling with her otherworldly dilemma, turns oddly opaque once it’s solved.
The path she chooses for the rest of her life—past marriage and through marigolds—is a strong, altogether admirable choice for her to make, and Searls’ staging makes it evocative and even moving. Her decision is, however, so utterly unexpected, that it made me think I must not have been privy to the habits of thought that led her to make it—that although I had paid attention to everything she’d said and done, I had somehow, in some central way, misjudged her. Both she and her playwright are far too smart for such a miscue to make sense, even in a world where logic and convention have been suspended.