"Burial Customs," Phoef Sutton's play currently at the New Playwrights' Theatre, falls somewhere between a television sitcom and Beth Henley's black comedies about Southern eccentrics. Which is to say that sometimes it is patently predictable and other times entertainingly macabre, all too glib in some places, but encouragingly insightful elsewhere.
Sutton has taken on a tricky assignment. Death occupies a position front and center in his work, which is set in a funeral home in the Shenandoah Valley in 1975 and examines a small-town society, disturbed in various ways by the accidental demise of a teenage hellraiser.
The playwright is chasing after some outrageous laughs in "Burial Customs," but he's also pursuing a serious theme: Only by looking death squarely in the eye can we really face up to life. He is amused by his characters, who are stuck in the straits and narrows of a conservative backwater. But he doesn't want to overridicule them. If the play veers toward the farcical, it can't quite bring itself to go all the way, as if farce, without the compensation of some serious thoughts, were slightly disreputable.
Few playwrights can successfully juggle so many apparent contradictions at the same time. And Sutton, at 26, is not yet one of them. Still, "Burial Customs" shows enough daring and flashes periodically with enough humor to make its author worth keeping tabs on. The seeds of originality are there, sprouting.
The play also signals the start of a new regime at New Playwrights' under artistic director Arthur Bartow, who took over the reins this summer from its founder, Harry Bagdasian. Bartow's careful staging and the high quality of the production values he has lavished on "Burial Customs" may be the most welcome aspect of the evening. Although New Playwrights' has always been dedicated to ironing out the kinks in new scripts, in the past the performers frequently got in the way with mistakes of their own. Bartow's cast for "Burial Customs" is not perfect, but it edges New Playwrights' closer to regional theater standards than has been the case up to now.
The characters, who gather in Charlie Strayhorn's funeral parlor (a first-rate set by Lewis Folden) cut across a spectrum of age and temperament. Charlie (Wilson Smith) is a reformed drunk and frustrated jazz musician who is clinging uneasily to the respectability demanded of him by the townsfolk. When his old friend Ethan Shifflet (Dennis Carrig) surges out of the past, however, all Charlie's romantic fantasies of taking to the open road, trumpet tucked under his arm, are reawakened. No matter that Ethan is now a wino, whose life has been as unkempt as his beard is unruly. Charlie smells liberation in the air.
First, though, there is the funeral of that teenage hippie to attend to. His death has polarized the community, in addition to which the corpse's left foot seems to have been misplaced. Everyone -- parents, friends and the stuffy town minister -- has his own idea of how the deceased should be embalmed and the memorial service conducted. You see what Sutton is doing -- putting on the pressure, just when the mortician has decided he wants out of his job and marriage to a wife (Mary Woods), whose self-control would shame Margaret Thatcher herself.
Some of the pressure, admittedly, is contrived. Ethan, for one, is a creature of such graceless charms that it is hard to imagine him igniting dreams in anyone. (Carrig's sloppy performance doesn't help matters much, either.) In order to get his characters to the brink, Sutton has them consume excessive amounts of booze. That is always a less than satisfactory motivation, affording the drinkers (and the playwright) the excuse that they didn't know what they were doing. And while the funeral service is indeed disrupted in unfortunate ways, the participants seem to be overreacting to the lapses in burial etiquette.
In spite of all this, the New Playwrights' production manages to work up a good deal of spirited momentum, which will allow you to live with, if not exactly forgive, the script's deficiencies. Smith certainly possesses the traditional mortician's look (the gleaming bald pate helps a lot), while the actor's inherent affability keeps the character from spilling into ghoulishness. Ernie Meier, one of the area's consistently dependable performers, is splendid as his eager-beaver assistant. Woods plays the ice-cube cool wife with commendable restraint. And there is solid, believable acting from Donald Neal, as the irritable father of the deceased; and Leisa Kelley and Jack Gwaltney, as counterculture types, who'd rather bury their friend on their own in a field.
If there are any worries in the atmosphere about the future of New Playwrights' under Bartow's leadership, "Burial Customs" ought to put them to rest for a while. The play's faults, I suspect, are one measure of its ambitions. Sure, Sutton needs seasoning, but isn't that precisely why New Playwrights' exists? This production, as professional as any that's been housed in the cozy Church Street facility, cannot be accused of withholding a helping hand.
BURIAL CUSTOMS. By Phoef Sutton. Directed by Arthur Bartow; set, Lewis Folden; costumes, Georgia Baker; lighting, Daniel Wagner. With Dennis Carrig, Jack Gwaltney, Leisa Kelley, Ernie Meier, Donald Neal, Wilson Smith, Mary Woods. At the New Playwrights' Theater through Nov. 4.