Play review: the waiting room | Theater Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Friday, September 7, 2018

Play review: the waiting room

Posted By on Fri, Sep 7, 2018 at 9:00 PM

Actor Jacob Goodman - PHOTO: FRANK WALSH
  • Photo: Frank Walsh
  • Actor Jacob Goodman

A man and a coffin are alone on stage.

Samuel (played by Jacob Goodman), is a shomer, tasked with keeping watch over the newly deceased body before he or she is put to rest. It's a Jewish ritual that Beth Corning, artistic director of CorningWorks dance company, first heard on a NPR show about funeral traditions.

CorningWorks' the waiting room is part of its Glue Factory Project series, featuring actors over the age of 45. It's hard not to notice a group celebrating aging actors is putting on a theatrical dance performance so centered on death. Only, while the coffin in the room is a constant reminder that death is present, much of the performance focuses more on the life of Samuel than his death.

The play takes place entirely in this one room, over the course of an evening after the person in the coffin has passed. The shomer, not allowed to sleep or eat as he sits with the body, is stuck with only himself, the coffin, and his memories as entertainment.

Goodman is awkward as hell, stammering on what to say to whoever's body is inside the casket. He intended to spend the night praying to the deceased, only, he forgot his prayer book, so he blurts out random facts, confessions instead. The first? "I'm gay." The coffin doesn't judge.

At times you wonder if the person inside wishes they could leave.

Goodman stumbles more than dances. It's hard at first to tell if his awkwardness is intentional, or opening night nerves. The silence is uncomfortable, the bad jokes echoing through the theater. But then he sang something in what I assume was Hebrew and the ladies sitting a few rows up look at each other and laugh. I felt left out. I needed subtitles.

The set itself is minimal, like most plays at New Hazlett. The wooden casket, several chairs, a rug, three large vertical screens at the back of the stage. But the performance also takes advantage of the balcony behind the set, and when projections appear on screens, the room suddenly feels larger.

The projections serve as memories, dreams, and introductions to the other three actors in the performance. They're as important to the show as the characters, as much a part of the script as the dialogue. Sometimes there are sketches — Samuel writes in a notebook and suddenly, his handwriting appears behind him. It's a delightful surprise to see the animated words moving across the screen — It is a theatrical dance performance, after all, and even the words are dancing.

One of the most striking visuals of the night is the swimming footage from the show's promotional materials. It's hypnotizing when brought to life; Samuel slowly, slowly, slowly swimming across all three screens. The audience holds his breath, exhales as the videos finally end.

In another poignant scene, Samuel speaks of skyscrapers from his youth, and whimsical drawings of buildings appear behind him. Then, a close-up sketch of a window, and the screen itself turns transparent, revealing a woman (actress Catherine Meredith) undressing from behind. She dances as she takes off her clothes, not seductively, almost sadly. She's a memory from his past, someone he used to watch from outside his city window as a boy. He sits in front of the stage, looks out above the audience as she dances behind him, remembers. The juxtaposition of the two characters is jarring, Samuel sinks into his chair, becomes again the small child he's channeling.

Over the rest of the hour-long production, Samuel parents are introduced, played by John Carson and Beth Corning, whose fabulous cooking scene shouldn’t be missed, backed by a superb musical score. The small intimate theater allows the thunderous music accompanying the performance to strike unexpectedly. Melancholy strings play loudly, forcing you to feel their weight as the dancers move across the stage.

The first ten minutes were painfully slow, perhaps intentionally slow, purposely making us feel uncomfortable. Who wouldn't feel uncomfortable, really, trapped overnight with a dead body you didn't even know? The rest of the show moved too fast. When the lights left at the end of the show, the room was silent, afraid at first to clap. Over already?

There are worst ways to spend your first night no longer living (assuming you know what's going on) than with an awkward shomer like Samuel. He grows on you as the hour passes, as you hear his secrets and make guesses to what is left unspoken. My only complaint is that I wish there were more of Beth Corning herself on stage. After all, what boy doesn't have more stories about his mother?

Two performances remain for the waiting room. Visit newhazlett.org for ticket info.

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