Set in “the edge of the city. Not now. Before,” its 90 minutes play out like a Theodore Dreiser or an Upton Sinclair tragedy. However, the lack of temporal and locale details make it an academic, fable-like treatise rather then a compelling work. Not stating or weaving into the dialogue where and when this story takes place dilutes its possible achievements.
Playwright Jeff Talbott offers an overall well-written and plotted social drama that detours into a strident political battle over capitalism. The sympathetic characters are trapped by their circumstances, as well as by Mr. Talbott’s rudimentary scenario.
Baylen is approaching middle age and barely makes a living as a gravedigger. He lives in a hovel with his young wife Margot and their perpetually crying infant daughter.
There is a symbolism-laden sex sequence between the couple. After much quarreling, they set aside their resentments and their primal passion is unleashed in the kitchen, as an escape against their poverty. The actors are clothed, but intercourse in several positions is simulated.
Baylen spends a lot of time with his loquacious, younger co-worker Gizzer on breaks between grave diggings.
One day, a well-dressed young man is wandering around the cemetery, looking for his dying father’s plot. He is Charles Timmens, the son of the wealthy owner of the area’s shipping company. He asks Baylen and Gizzer for directions, and the primary conflict of the play is revealed.
The clash between inherited wealth versus the underprivileged is depicted didactically. Gizzer is one of six children who had a difficult time. His father worked on the Timmens’ loading dock and was crushed to death by a sack of flour. Gizzer is resentful of Timmens and instigates a quarrel. There are more grim complications that build to a painful conclusion.
The flawed script is energized by the impeccable production elements.
Wilson Chin’s scenic design is quite impressive. The playing area is on a raised wooden platform with a ramp. Half of it depicts the ramshackle dwelling with suitably detailed furnishings. The other half is the cemetery.
Matthew Richards’ striking lighting design enhances the Beckettian imagery as the two men dig graves in its steady illumination.
Toby Jaguar Algya’s modulated sound design effectively transmits Will Van Dyke’s moody, electronic score that punctuates the scene transitions.
The tattered garments created by costume designer Tracy Christensen perfectly realize the poorer characters, as does her austere suit for the rich Charles Timmens.
Director Jenn Thompson’s staging is accomplished, with characters entering and exiting from interesting spots, including through the theater’s aisles. The pace is measured, there’s a strong visual quality to the production, and the performances are rich.
With gruff poignancy, Ted Koch is powerful as Baylen. Mr. Koch’s everyman quality is compounded by his physically imposing stature that makes his plight even sadder.
The animated Todd Lawson as Gizzer delightfully veers from comic relief to painful darkness.
Jeremy Beck perfectly conveys the boyish angst of Charles Timmens.
As the resilient matriarch Margot, KK Moggie is pragmatically hard-edged with touching flashes of life-affirming romance.
“The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. The Gravedigger’s Lullaby has several Shavian exchanges, and is in the territory of Shaw, but its vagueness prevents it from attaining a comparable impact.
The Gravedigger’s Lullaby (through April 1, 2017)
TACT/The Actors Company Theatre
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.tactnyc.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission