“Dinner at Home between Deaths” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

It’s spring, and LA theatre’s fancy turns to… death? Based on what I’ve seen recently, one could be tempted to make that assumption. Death Play was a meditation on the trauma of losing both parents and a beloved grandmother while still in one’s early twenties. Dirt was the tale of a mid-30ish woman who died a painful and grisly death alone in her apartment and wasn’t discovered for several days. And now Dinner at Home between Deaths…?

Unlike the first two mentioned, this entry in the mort sweepstakes bills itself as “A Pitch Black Comedy.” While it’s well-done and handsome to look at, the color of the completed dish turns out to be less pitch-black than one of the fifty shades of grey.

To be sure, death is only one of the items on the menu for this Dinner. Playwright Andrea Lepcio has whipped up a plot centering on a Bernie Madoff-like central character named Sean Lynch (Todd Waring), an investor who’s made a fortune managing other peoples’ money but has, in fact, not invested in anything but himself for five years. Apparently, his recipe for success is to cook the books to show record gains each year, using freshly-harvested money to pay dividends to his loyal pool of clients.

Diane Cary and Todd Waring. Photo: Michael Lamont

Diane Cary and Todd Waring. Photo: Michael Lamont

His wife of 37 years, Fiona (Diane Cary), is a socially adept fashion plate, hardboiled to the point of being a dragon lady, but unaware of Sean’s malfeasance. She’s planning to attend a fancy-schmancy benefit with him but returns home to find he has instead set the (huge) dining room table for an intimate dinner for two, and has even prepared a stew.

What’s going on? Fiona’s puzzled, and not a little put out, at this disruption in plans, especially when Sean – for some inexplicable reason – starts speaking with a heavy Irish brogue, settin’ Fiona on his knee, and beggin’ the dear lass to run away with him to Ireland. At one point, he timidly confesses he’s done a bad thing.

L-R Diane Cary, Andrea Evans, and Todd Waring. Photo: Michael Lamont

L-R Diane Cary, Andrea Evans, and Todd Waring. Photo: Michael Lamont

Before you can say “Huh?” Fiona’s sister Kat Cabot (Andrea Evans) – the hostess of the benefit, an event for the foundation she heads – arrives in full evening attire, and drops a bombshell: Sean, she claims, has been having an affair with the adopted daughter of her third husband, and now the young woman is missing.

In flashbacks, we learn that Lily Cunningham-Goldberg (Amielynn Abellera), the woman in question, is, in fact, quite young, quite beautiful, and very very smart. She’s also more than a little flirtatious, and after Sean hires her to work for his company, the two embark on an affair, much of which seems to take place on Sean’s sailboat: Lily was a champion sailor herself, and the lovers trade off taking the tiller.

The affair becomes a touch complicated, however, when Lily confronts Sean about his business. See, Lily – who’s good with numbers – has figured out that Sean stopped investing five years ago, and has also figured out something nefarious is afoot. Sean doesn’t like being figured out, and in a moment of weakness – desperation? – pushes Lily overboard. Then he goes home and makes that stew.

Todd Waring and Amielynn Abellera. Photo: Michael Lamont

Todd Waring and Amielynn Abellera. Photo: Michael Lamont

The rest of the play is concerned with what everyone does next: should Sean go back to investing, or just pay people off with the money he still has and then retire to Ireland? Should Fiona stick with him? How can Kat get back the money her Foundation trusted to Sean? If she can’t – or she can’t get enough – will she go to the authorities? What’s to be done about Sean and Fiona’s unseen housekeeper Esmeralda, for whom Fiona has finally procured a green card? And does anyone really care about poor drowned Lily?

The play has the ingredients for a nasty farce, and indeed seems to want to be the Ruthless People of the hedge fund set. Unfortunately, while there are a couple of good moments, laughs are few and far between, mostly because the whole thing is much too polite. Unlike the characters in Ruthless People, the inhabitants of Dinner at Home are more rueful than gleeful in their plotting, and this proves a fatal flaw.

Most crucially, Sean is a reluctant villain. Aside from his little-boy demeanor when he confesses his “bad thing” to Fiona, he claims to be tormented at the possibility of having an affair with Lily: he tells her he’s never cheated on Fiona, and seems genuinely ambivalent about doing it now. When Fiona discovers the affair has been going on for some time, she asks Sean if that’s why he stopped going to Communion – yes, instead of a Shylockian Jew being the financial dastard here, it’s a venal, but apparently pious, Irish Catholic. And when he pushes Lily overboard, it almost seems like an accident more than murder.

The technical elements of the production are outstanding. The set by Evan A. Bartoletti is quietly elegant, and features a futuristic-looking mobile sculpture which cleverly plays a secondary role in the play; it’s notable as well that the dining room table proves to be considerably more than initially meets the eye. The equally elegant costumes by Michael Mullen actually look like the sort of clothes rich people wear, while the lighting by Derrick McDaniel and sound by Cricket S. Myers provide valuable support.

All the actors are very good, but they’re also pretty likable, which is a problem. None of them displays that quality of chortling evil which might produce belly laughs, though I fear the lack of sharpness in the script would make it difficult for anyone. The flavor of this Dinner is more sweet than sour, and that isn’t bad – but it needs a soupçon more tartness if it’s to be as inky as it wants to be.

Todd Waring and Andrea Evans. Photo: Michael Lamont

Todd Waring and Andrea Evans. Photo: Michael Lamont

True, there are a few deliciously impolite moments. Lily is Asian, which prompts Kat to comment that “of course” she was good with numbers. And Kat is allergic to peanuts, so Sean first attempts to kill her by serving her potatoes fried in peanut oil, then later – hilariously – by tossing the contents of a can of peanuts at her. If only there were more such enthusiastically rude touches, this show, crisply directed by Stuart Ross, might have fulfilled its pitch-black promise.

Dinner at Home between Deaths
Written by Andrea Lepcio
Directed by Stuart Ross

Through May 8

Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Tickets: 323-960-4429 or www.plays411.com/dinner


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