By Morris Panych. Directed by Stephen DiMenna. DR2 Theatre. (CLOSED)
Critics are pretty split on Morris Panych's two-hander about a man sitting by his aunt's bedside, waiting for her to die. A few critics write that the short scenes in the first act do not allow for much buildup, but Nytheatre.com's Martin Denton praises these "fits and starts." Many critics find that Malcolm Gets, who has most of the dialogue, succeeds at the dark comedy, but fails to reveal his character's sensitive side, while Helen Stenborg receives nothing but raves for her mostly silent performance.
DC Theatre Scene A
(Richard Seff) Mr. Panych is one of Canada’s best kept secrets. North of the border he is a most celebrated playwright, and yet he is not well known in these parts. His plays The Ends of the Earth and Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, [the MetroStage production in Alexandria won the DCTS Audience Choice Award] and his other works have been mounted in Asia, Australia, the U.S., and New Zealand. His newest work The Trespassers premiered at the Stratford Festival this summer. Vigil works so well because it manages to make its protagonist, a self-admitted neurotic on the verge of psychosis, a man of many parts, wounded almost beyond repair, and little by little his relationship with the old lady deepens and as it does it includes us. We care about these two, and the final revelations that end the play bring us total satisfaction. Though at times it smacks of Night Must Fall and other thrillers involving young ne’er do wells out to kill susceptible older women, its dark comic tone and its underlying loneliness – make it a rich stew of a play.
(Martin Denton) Director Stephen DiMenna establishes a pace and tone for Vigil from the outset that keeps us slightly on edge and untethered. Two expert actors work the rest of the magic to make the play comic and buoyant and smart (though never sentimental). Malcolm Gets is Kemp, terminally unhappy without ever getting on our nerves as he rattles on and on about past injustices and present pet peeves. Helen Stenborg, in the much quieter role of Grace, threatens to steal the show from Gets periodically, reacting eloquently from her bed to his tirades and then surprising us with a stealthy, spry move that we don't see coming.
(Adam Perlman) Some plays just don't sound good in plot summary. If I were to tell you that Morris Panych's "Vigil" is a two-hander about a man visiting his estranged, dying aunt, how could you not sound the "Tuesdays With Morrie" alarm? But fear not; this is no treaclefest. Acerbically funny and sneakily affecting, "Vigil" is a jagged jewel of a play... It's a tribute to Stenborg's tender, twinkling performance that she makes the evening feel balanced, despite having only a handful of lines. Her physical performance speaks volumes—there's something dear and mischievous about this bed-bound biddy—and the scene in which she places her hand on Gets' shoulder is a minor comic masterpiece.
(Deirdre Donovan) The production would benefit if the intermission was cut along with a few scenes. Director Stephen DiMenna would have done well to rethink having so many short scenes back-to back, all punctuated by blackouts. Instead of building the action, these staccato-like episodes create a fragmenting effect. Another reason for omitting some scenes is that Kemp is not that psychologically complex a character. Granted, he does change from being a killer-diller to a more feeling human being but it seems unnecessary to watch him find a dozen new ways to hurry his aunt to her grave. The original music by Greg Pliska is a plus for heightening pivotal moments and accentuating Stenborg's sustained silence and Gets' zanyness. The passing of the seasons is sensitively rendered by Ed McCarthy's lighting; and Andromache Chalfant's claustrophobic set is rightly cluttered with an old woman's life-time paraphernalia.The show is worth seeing for the excellent performances by these strange bedfellows who execute a fine pas de deux before the final scene with its surprise twist.
(Patrick Lee) Panych sets the darkly comic tone with a series of short staccato scenes in the first act, most of which end with one of Kemp's poisonous remarks before blackout. In this production, it's disappointing that the series of short scenes haven't been shaped to gain momentum; each plays at the same level rather than raising the stakes incrementally. If the production is not always successful at maintaining the tone for the play's pitch black comedy, it succeeds at the larger job of credibly depicting the relationship between the two characters. Both Gets and Stenborg give performances that connect to the characters' humanity; even in the play's most grotesque moments, we see the loneliness that drives Grace and Kemp.
Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) If the second act is a noticeable improvement, with both the writing and Gets becoming more sensitive to their surroundings, it’s not much more dynamic in terms of its sudden switch to maudlin sentimentality. The on-the-sleeve feelings it develops are more appropriate to a Lifetime movie of the week than a play that needs to balance its soft and its hard sides to keep an audience engaged without tear-stained close-ups. At least Stenborg is a winner, finding just the right middle ground between emotional strength and physical fragility. She extracts all the comedy possible, in both physicality and facial expression, from lying in bed (Grace’s most frequent activity), and she makes every one of her few words count. And when she comes into her own in Act II, it’s a thoughtful transformation that floods the stage with some much-needed sunshine and, more important, a recognizable humanity. Her warmth only makes Gets’s whiny and robotic nephew look even seamier - for the play to work, we must believe in Kemp’s inherent, if deeply hidden, goodness. Otherwise, what’s intended as comic just comes across as cruel.
The New York Times D+
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Panych is a highly regarded playwright in his native Canada, so perhaps something has been lost in nontranslation in this production, directed by Stephen DiMenna. The character of Kemp is ostensibly meant to be darkly amusing in his literate peevishness. “I don’t like people,” he observes. “It’s not just that I can take them or leave them. I really don’t like them. Children, of course, are just a smaller, stickier variety; less apt to talk postmodernism, which is a large part of their charm.” But this finicky fellow feels more like a literary artifact than a flesh-and-blood human being (he claims to be asexual), and a familiar one at that. (Paul Rudnick’s funny new book of essays, “I Shudder,” contains a far more charming variation.)
DC Theatre Scene A 13; Nytheatre.com A 13; Backstage A 13; CurtainUp B+ 11; TheaterMania B 10; Talkin' Broadway C+ 8; The New York Times D+ 5; TOTAL: 73/7 = 10.43 (B)