- Natalie and Peter wrestle with sibling love and, by extension, each other.
For that reason, the relationships in The Death of Frank, now being staged by Dobama's Night Kitchen, are intriguing enough to sustain interest despite playwright Stephen Belber's faux lyricism and some cringingly obvious punch lines. Jumping back and forth in time and place (from an unknown urban setting in the U.S. to Africa and back) and featuring shared narration, the script employs a jumble of vignettes to tell the tale. Happily, this production benefits from two outstanding performances that feel so real, you'll almost want to take those bruised characters out for a soothing latte after the curtain.
At the core of the story are Natalie and Peter, siblings in their twenties who live together and who grew up performing little skits for their parents. However, these seemingly average young adults find themselves in a rather uncomfortable place. Peter, you see, has the hots for Sis (an unhealthy attraction perhaps triggered by the "Tree and Syrup Dance" they performed as grade-schoolers), but Natalie is not so interested, despite a lingering kiss. She is focusing her lustful attentions on being the bottom for a brutish construction company boss, Frank, who's a couple decades her senior. When Peter isn't trying to distract himself from his incestuous thoughts by hoeing the rows of his small garden plot, he's busy being an overprotective brother. This sets up a confrontation between Peter and Frank in which the hoe is used for a decidedly different purpose.
Although Peter's sexual orientation is spinning like a compass in a magnet factory, he finds himself attracted to a woman, Lynn, whom he meets after her lecture on linguistics and violence. This tortured plot contrivance is all in the service of Belber's central theme: that we all try to use language to control the world around us, not to mention our own twisted and delirious passions. As expected, the linguist also has a dark side, packing a pistol in her waistband that will figure in the not-so-mysterious denouement revealed in the title, as well as in the first couple minutes of the performance.
Director Adrienne Moon establishes an easy, off-the-cuff style for the actors, and it works splendidly for brother and sister. Thomas White as Peter has a slacker-soft delivery and a slumped posture that would invite an atomic wedgie from Quaker activists. This attitude makes his sexual focus more touching than creepy, and you root for him as he tries to work out his identity beneath his simmering jealousy of Frank. Sadie Grossman's Natalie clicks smoothly as Peter's counterpart, unashamedly pursuing her erotic dreams, undressing obediently when Frank so orders, and accepting his rough love in trade for his strength. Grossman and White wisely throw away tons of lines in an entirely successful process of shaping these fascinating roles.
But the laid-back approach doesn't work quite as well for the other two characters. As Frank, Joseph Milan yells angrily into the phone at one point, but otherwise doesn't exude the riptide of psychological dominance necessary to bring his relationship with Natalie and Peter into sharp relief. And while Jodi Brinkman hones a properly knife-sharp edge to Lynn, she always seems to be floating just outside the real world, where Natalie and Peter are struggling to resolve their social and sexual entanglements. Even when Lynn appears to share Natalie's craving for Frank's bare-knuckle ardor, it feels too slim and too late.
Playwright Belber whips up some crisp dialogue and a couple of genuinely funny moments, but these are outweighed by a tendency to reach for poetic expressions that just clang to the floor (Natalie explains her attraction to Frank by saying, "I'm the diamond and you're the rough"). Belber also can't resist launching some jokes that you can see coming from four blocks away, such as a series of "hoe" jokes that any self-respecting fifth-grader could have authored, and an inevitable reference to Lynn as, yes, a cunning linguist. Ho . . . ho.
Due to the scattershot nature of the script format, a number of sub-themes are never fully realized, such as Natalie's mysterious and never explained "stillness" and Peter's omnisexual confusions. But due to director Moon's wisely downbeat direction and the performances by Grossman and White, there is definitely life in this Death.