Shallow Grave

Even if you're the type destined to arrive late for your own burial, you should make it a point to show up at least fifteen minutes early for Grandma Sylvia's Funeral, the interactive comedy now at the Broward Stage Door Theater in Coral Springs. That's the time Grandma Sylvia herself arrives -- in a coffin that has been precariously wedged into the trunk of a taxi. Seems her hearse broke down on I-95 and the only chariot ready to carry her home was a cab driven by an Arab. Okay, subtle it's not, but while some of your fellow ticket-holders are drafted as pallbearers to wrestle the coffin inside the theater, you can kibitz and kvetch with the 23 mock mourners who portray Sylvia's friends and family. Just be prepared to explain how you knew the deceased, and don't let grandson Todd give you any of his home-rolled "cigarettes."

Interactive theater offers audience members a chance to be a star. With folks still dying to get into the off-Broadway production two and a half years after it opened, Grandma Sylvia's Funeral joins the participatory Italian-American nuptials of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding (nine years and counting) on the list of the five longest-running commercial off-Broadway shows currently on the boards.

Funeral cocreator Glenn Wein travels back to his South Florida birthplace with the production he conceived in 1993 with Amy Lord Blumsack while both were performing in Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding in Los Angeles. Born in Coral Gables, Wein used to go to foreign and Yiddish films on Lincoln Road with his grandmother, and he based many of Funeral's wild characters on his local family and friends. Although he opened the current production starring in the role of Sylvia's devoted grandson, Wein is leaving the cast for an unspecified period of time; yet it is his character, Gary Grossman, who really needs a break.

After checking on the coffin's move to Helsenrott Jewish Mortuary (the theater), Gary sidesteps the latest Grossman family squabble, complaining, "I've had it with this family already and the day is just getting started." Surveying the rows filled with mourners (the audience), Gary makes everyone a part of Sylvia's extended family by applying a little Jewish guilt, going on about his solitary vigil at Grandma Sylvia's side following her fatal run-in with a garbage truck: "You said you'd come. Now you're here dressed for bingo."

Well, not bingo, actually -- yarmulkes were handed to all gentlemen at the door, except for Gary's cousin Stuart "Skyboy" Grossman (David Eric Rosenberg), who wears a propeller beanie in lieu of the traditional religious headgear; that is, when he isn't wearing Sylvia's flaming red wig in a rage-filled performance-art memorial tribute. Still, he puts a little more thought into his eulogy than does his sluttish, leather-clad sister Dori (Laura Freundlich), whose poem honoring Sylvia is written on gum wrappers.

Nor is Gary a model mourner: Aware of the presence of show-biz friends of his Aunt Marlena (Bonnie Black), who works as a make-up artist, he turns a medley of Sylvia's favorite songs into an audition, complete with chaser lights spelling out his name. New-age alcoholic Natalie Chasen (Angie Radosh) also gets lit up, to the great annoyance of her sugar daddy, Sylvia's brother Dave (Charles Newman), while great-niece Dr. Rachel Rosenbaum (Valerie Peters-Jett) delivers a sermon from her pop-psychology best seller.

The whole eighteen-member Grossman clan belongs on the couch, but instead they move from the stage to various seats in the theater, all the while chatting with audience members/mourners. For our part, we join in songs and even break bagel with the family in an intermission bereavement nosh overseen by Helga Helsenrott (Kathleen Emerich), the marvelously Teutonic mortuary director. The woman understands how to get grieving friends and family to exit single file.

And everyone does get in line with the interactive concept of extended family. For example, the woman seated behind me turned Jewish mother and handed me the chocolate cookie she wasn't going to eat. (I ate it, even though the calories were going straight to my tuchis.) And yet the fun is diminished by a major drawback: This funeral's plot is dead.

While the play's pseudoservice is scripted, its characters remain little more than comic archetypes, essential only for fleeting, impromptu routines. (Indeed, the service itself resembles a collection of improv club-type sketches: Character A is a drunk, character B is her older lover, and they're at his sister's funeral.) Like a sitcom gone mad, there's the tramp Dori, who latches on to every man in sight; gay Vlad Helsenrott (Paul Cameron), who cruises in his leather, metal-studded yarmulke; lawyer granddaughter Melissa (Lacey Ruskin) and her black doctor husband (Anthony Hubert); Melissa's bulimic housewife sister Risa (Gabrielle Abitol) and her Cuban businessman husband Fredo (Danyel Simone); plus a dysfunctional dozen more. Admirably, all cast members embrace their roles and remain in character throughout the proceedings.

They say the secret to success is all in the timing, and perhaps the time may be ripe for interactive theater in South Florida. But I have to side with real estate brokers, who insist that nothing is more important than location, location, location. Attending theater is somewhat akin to going on a blind date, and I think I probably could have fallen for Grandma Sylvia's Funeral if it had been presented in a dark cabaret, where after a few drinks the character sitting at my table would have seemed amusing. Exposed under the bright lights of the proscenium, however, Grandma Sylvia's Funeral comes across as somewhat superficial and wanting, even if it has a great personality.

Successful dramatic thrillers share three common elements: deceptive characters, unexpected plot twists, and a lifeless body. The sluggish production of Ira Levin's 1978 comedy thriller Deathtrap, now playing at the Off Broadway Theatre in Wilton Manors, gets the lifeless part right.

Master mystery playwright Sydney Bruhl (Brian C. Smith), Deathtrap's protagonist, knows what it takes to make a thriller work. In his studio (marvelously realized in Jay Tompkins's set), located in a converted stable on his nine-acre Connecticut home, mementos from Sydney's past Broadway triumphs share wall space with an arsenal of guns, knives, and medieval maces.

But Sydney suffers from serious writer's block; he lives off his wealthy wife Myra (Carole Vaughn) and the money he makes conducting occasional seminars for fledgling playwrights. After Clifford (Gregg Baruch), one of his students, sends him a first draft of what Sydney considers to be a sure-fire hit, he fumes with jealously -- until he realizes that he is the only person besides Clifford who has seen the script. A desperate Sydney invites Clifford over for a few pointers, first making certain that he will bring along all existing copies of the script.

Bursting with dreams of glory, Clifford is greeted by Myra's suggestion that Sydney share in the play's profits, as a collaborator. Sydney buffets Clifford with queries about his friends, future appointments, and living arrangements. Little wonder that the meeting's discordant vibrations draw the attention of the Bruhls' new neighbor, famed Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Patti Smith), who senses that terrible things will occur in the studio.

Not surprisingly, they do, as over the course of six scenes alliances are made, tables are turned, and murder is committed. But Deathtrap, where is thy sting? Because of actor/director Smith's languid pacing, which affords us too much time to ponder the red herrings, and because of the cast's predictable portrayals, Levin's dramatic puzzle never startles us; nor does it leave us uneasily pondering how well we can ever know someone. With the words possible victim seeming to hover over her head from the start, Vaughn's whiny Myra is hardly the checkbook-wielding force who can manipulate her brilliant husband. Similarly, only a fool would trust Baruch's yuppie writer, who makes it clear he will stop at nothing to succeed.

Deathtrap's success, however, depends on the cold manipulation of the aloof Sydney, whom Smith makes too ingratiating to be menacing. As for Patti Smith, she transforms her Ten Dorp into a psychic-hotline buffoon, offering welcome comic relief. Robbed of its suspense and fascinating characters, this Deathtrap is more whydoit than whodunnit.

Grandma Sylvia's Funeral.
Created by Glenn Wein and Amy Lord Blumsack; directed by Glenn Wein; with Glenn Wein, Bonnie Black, and Laura Freundlich. Ongoing. For more information call 954-344-7765 or see "Calendar Listings."

Written by Ira Levin; directed by Brian C. Smith; with Brian C. Smith, Gregg Baruch, and Carole Vaughn. Through December 31. For more information call 954-566-0554 or see "Calendar Listings.


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