Although there is no through line, the second half of the evening which contains the best three plays all concern regret and the roads not taken. In the first, “Life Signs,” Dr. Binkman has just declared Toby’s mother dead, when Toby kisses her and hears her speak. Neither Dr. Binkman nor Toby’s wife Meredith will initially believe him – but we know he is not hallucinating. After the doctor leaves, both Toby and Meredith hear his mother tell the story of her life – and it contains hilarious and surprising secrets she has held all these years, considering the repressed, conservative woman she had become. The revelations start coming fast and furious and the faster they come, the more outrageous they are. As the late Mrs. Skinner with too much to get off her chest, Hutchinson keeps the audience in stitches. As her grieving and shocked son, Elrod registers a gamut of horrified emotions – including when his wife (Rooth) reveals her own secret she has been harboring. Burton’s doctor triggers laughter as a man who can’t help making one faux pas after another.
In the poignant, “It’s All Good,” a man gets to see how his life would have turned out if he had taken another path. As New York novelist Stephen Rivers (Holmes) packs to give the keynote address at a literary conference in his home town of Chicago where he hasn’t been in some time, his wife Leah (Hutchinson) asks if he will look up his old girlfriend Amy. Stephen pooh-poohs the idea that he would look up his high school sweetheart after all these years.
But life often sends curve balls one’s way, and on the Chicago loop, going to see the old neighborhood, he meets a man (Elrod) his exact age who appears to be living the life that Stephen would have lived if he had stayed in Chicago. And most surprising he is married to an Amy (Rooth). This affecting time warp drama is a powerful statement about the road not taken, but which of us normally get to see how it would have turned out. Holmes and Elrod make an excellent contrast as the two Stephen/Steve Rivers while Rooth is the understandably upset ex-girlfriend. Hutchinson is fine in her brief appearance as the understanding wife.
The last play of the evening is most unusual. In “Lives of the Saints,” two elder women, Edna (Hutchinson) and Flo (Rooth) are preparing a funeral breakfast in the vestry of St. Stanislas Kostka but in pantomime. The meal they are preparing for only 12 guests seems to be endless, and when they begin to have supernatural help, we begin to wonder if they are dead themselves or just “living saints” to go to all this work out of the goodness of their hearts. As the elder women, the remarkable Hutchinson and Rooth play characters totally unlike all the rest of their roles of the evening. Burton, Elrod and Holmes give excellent silent aid in the preparation of the meal.
Unfortunately, the first three plays on suspect choices that people make are really blackout sketches stretched out to 50 minutes together: a man jokingly asks his richer friend for a gift of a flat screen television with unintended consequences (“The Goodness of Your Heart”); a television soap opera concerns a Maypole repairman’s love for his washing machine with every possible pun on soap or cleanliness (“Soap Opera”); and two sets of “doubles” (Bill 1 and 2 and Bebe 1 and 2) feel that they are not alone as we see every line and scene repeated twice (“Enigma Variations.”)
While all of these premises start out amusingly, they all overstay their welcome – unlike the second three, all of which could have been longer. Beowulf Boritt’s six sets, complemented by the lighting of Jason Lyons and the sound design and original music by John Gromada are exactly what is needed for each play. Anita Yavich’s costume design is just what these people would wear in their daily lives.
Lives of the Saints (through March 27, 2015)
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.primarystages.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission