AS A SOURCE of family revelation and humor, the funeral is rivaled perhaps only by the wedding. Memories, grief grudges are unearthed, generations and relationships revived. Someone invariably says something appalling. And who hasn't struggled to suppress the perverse urge to giggle at a solemn moment?
New Playwrights' Theater and young Washington playright Phoef Sutton try to tap into this well if inspiration with "Burial Customs." But, alas, they have a stiff on their hands.
Many writers have mined the mirth in the morbid -- most notably novelist Evelyn Waugh with "The Loved One," and more recently, playwright Beth Henley with "The Wake of Jamey Foster." But the breath of life never enters Sutton's stone-cold sitcom, which might be subtitled "Death Has a Salesman."
Here's the plot, no pun intended: It's 1975, and as funeral director Charlie Strayhorn is preparing the corpse of a young man killed in a motorcycle crash, a long-lost buddy shows up, soused and shabby. Strayhorn has a mid-life crises on the spot, decides to give up his middle-class toil and return to the life of a traveling trumpeter. Sutton tosses in a missing corpse, a bumbling apprentice mortician, a pompous minister and a pair of patently rebellious teens and hopes for a zany funeral farce.
But Sutton casts his net too wide, muddling a wacky comedy in the style of "You Can't Take It With You," and a bathetic depiction of how death affects the survivors, and an attach/defense of the American way of death. Although he tries to milk the irreverent shoptalk at the funeral parlor, Sutton fails even to offend. We don't get anything new -- even the old "People are dying to get in here" cemetery gag would be welcome.
The cast is competent on the whole, but Dennis Carrig plays drunken Ethan Shifflet as Foster Brooks via Wolfman Jack, burying whatever subtlety his scenes contain in a bombastic roar.
"Burial Customs" marks the Washington directing debut of new artistic director Arthur Bartow. To his credit, Bartow gives some energy to the proceedings, but it's a misstep as a season-opener. Perhaps Bartow would have been better off giving this one last rites. BURIAL CUSTOMS -- At New Playrights' Theater through November 4.