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Three one-act plays at Magic Theatre use dark comedy to explore death

Making fun of death, to poke fun at our own mortality, to understand that all this will, and does, come to an end, well, that’s nothing new.

Playwrights, writers, filmmakers, artists have satirized and forced a sense of humor about our inevitable end for eons. We call that a dark comedy.

But to present such ghoulish humor with resounding poignancy, now that’s a bit trickier.

Playwright Elaine May, alongside Jeannie Berlin, do just that in their direction of the wonderfully produced, “Moving Right Along” a series of three one-act plays now showing at the Magic Theatre.

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Kicking things off is Czech playwright Jan Mirochek’s “Killing Trotsky,” the story of Max, a down and out playwright living in squalor who writes similarly down-and-out plays about a world devoid of anything remotely sounding or looking like optimism.

Rejected by his faithful producer Otto, which subsequently leads to being dumped by his girlfriend, Max speaks his final words to the world on his answering machine and prepares to jump out his apartment window.

An incoming call sets the answering machine in motion and hearing his voice recite the verbose farewell stirs in Max an insatiable desire to re-record his message, but he gets stuck in the window.

Max is played by Mark Rydell. The Academy Award-nominated director of “On Golden Pond,” and the revered actor does the character charming justice.

Still, tighter direction for this fast-paced short play could have avoided a bit of the lull that occurs in the play’s second half.

Rydell graces the stage a second time in “On the Way.” This time he plays George, a wealthy man of leisure on his way to Aspen, Colo.

Driving him there is Freddie (Daveed Diggs), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who might have the worst knowledge of history in the world (the young man’s never heard of Hitler), yet still offers the most refreshing insight into the world at large. Politics abound for sure, but so indirectly and unobvious, it is one of the most refreshing commentary plays seen in a long time.

Stealing the show, however, is “George is Dead,” the final play in the show’s lineup, written and directed by May.

Here, the playwright’s talent for piecing together dialogue is as masterful as a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Marlo Thomas plays Doreen, the newly widowed wife of George; the same George from “On the Way.”

Thomas is sensational as the shallow socialite, who drops very unexpectedly upon her childhood nanny’s daughter of all people, seeking solace and comfort in her time of despair, and while overwhelmed exclaims, “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad.”

Thomas masters this character, which, lucky for her, is a fine achievement from the creator May.

Countering Doreen’s audacity is Carla (Julia Brothers), whose quiet exasperation brings the proper balance and depth that lends the play a toned-down David Ives quality.</p>

Still, May builds in tender subtleties, such as Doreen’s refusal to attend to any of her late husband’s funeral arrangements, with a somber and beautiful sincerity that connects the audience immediately to a situation that seemingly can’t get anymore absurd.

Stage review

Moving Right Along ???½

When: Playing through Nov. 18

Where: Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $20-$52

Info: Call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

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