Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Mary-Arrchie’s Life Is Good is billed as a work in progress, but to call it that would be generous. It seems a lot more like a work in trouble. The play, which concerns a man’s attempt to kill himself and his subsequent appreciation of life, credits a wide array of authors: The original script is credited to ensemble member Brian Sandstrom. The “new concept” is attributed to Richard Cotovsky and Nancy Scanlon. The “improvisation of concept” is credited to the ensemble, and Joe Urbanik is responsible for the “script based on improvisation.” Still others are credited under the heading “Portions of Script Also Contributed.”

To dwell on this strange script-by-committee process would be unfair, except that Life Is Good looks like the kind of work for which no one would like to take credit. On the night I saw it the performers had just received new scripts, so some allowances have to be made for shaky moments and weak exchanges. But the real problems have nothing to do with the performers. What’s lacking is an interesting story and a good script.

The story begins on December 23 in Suswaken, New Jersey, where Frank Treadway is trying to commit suicide. Each time he tries he’s interrupted by friends and neighbors asking favors of him. Could he run down to the grocery store to get some beer? Could he help get the glass out of someone’s foot? Frank is bounced from chore to chore like a pinball, and gradually we learn why this abused individual might feel like taking his own life. The turning point of the play comes when Frank encounters Valerie Hayes, a movie star rumored to be dead who tells Frank he should do something for himself for once and entreats him to commit suicide with her–at which point Frank rejects suicide and chooses life.

This isn’t the most original of concepts. In fact, it’s difficult to tell from which source Life Is Good’s authors cribbed the most. The show calls to mind Jean-Louis Barrault’s pantomime attempted suicide in Children of Paradise, Marcel Marceau’s masterful “Bip Commits Suicide,” a particularly yucky Twilight Zone episode called “Ring-a-Ding Girl,” and of course that most famous of holiday war-horses, It’s a Wonderful Life. But Life Is Good resembles these sources in concept alone. In practice it goes absolutely nowhere. It’s a hackneyed concept in search of a play, providing more compelling reasons for those in the audience to commit suicide than to embrace life.

The dialogue is choppy, either rambling or preachy. You can almost point out which sections came from improvisation and which popped from an author’s typewriter. The uninteresting characters struggle to achieve two dimensions and generally can be described in one word: Frank the schlemiel, Barbara the slattern, Denise the bespectacled nerd. And then there’s Professor Dickstien, whose character description can be found in the first syllable of his surname. The play’s serious moments are belabored and obvious, and the comic moments aren’t particularly amusing, the exception being a humorous poem delivered by Sandstrom far too late to help the play. The actors do the best they can under the circumstances, and the directors aren’t really at fault either.

Conflicts in the show develop merely from the need to push the play along to its conclusion. Characters enter and leave when the plot requires them to. A phony all-out brawl is moved outside simply because the stage has to be cleared for a two- person scene. On the whole this work in progress looks like a nightmare improv game in which somebody forgot to shout “Freeze!”