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BWW Reviews: DEATH TAX at Lookingglass Theater

J. Nicole Brooks and Deanna Dunagan

The early Greek theaters were temples. The purpose of theater was to give people a place in which to worship their gods. It was believed that by going to the theater, one could have direct communication with the gods. Well, almost; it was believed that spiritual information came down from the gods through the actors, who then gave this information to the audience. The audience then gave their collective response, which then was sent back, again through the actors, up to the gods. It was this back-and-forth communication of ideas, feelings, and energy between us and the Great Beyond that gave birth to what we now refer to as "theater".


By producing Death Tax at Lookingglass Theater, it's as if the producers are saying that the entire concept of theater - of catharisis - is dead. They're done with empathy, and nobody wants to feel or learn anything about being human, at the theater. If you have a strange, esoteric, or fringe idea, or a 1%-er problem, you can make a play about it and people will come see it. We're not in the business of making people introspective, anymore. All we care about is if something looks good on paper.

Look, several other reviewers in Chicago have already panned Death Tax, and I don't want to pile on. But there are very serious problems with this play, and I believe it's important to point them out. Because a great deal of time, energy and money went into producing Death Tax, and I don't understand why. I'm not saying we're only ever allowed to see Death of a Salesman, from now on. I'm just saying that to pick and produce a play which upholds exactly none of the basic tenants of theater seems to me a dangerous trend.

Lookingglass describes the plot thusly: "How much would you pay to stay alive? As her health deteriorates, Maxine is convinced her daughter is paying Nurse Tina to "nudge" her into the grave before the new estate tax become law. So Maxine proposes a deal of her own, and the wild ride begins, delivering us, as the title suggests, straight to the intersection of America's two inevitables. Darkly comedic, treacherously suspenseful, engaging and provocative."

First of all, 'America's two inevitables'? Okay, yes, death is inevitable, but Estate Taxes (capital E, capital T, i.e., taxes on estates worth over a million dollars) aren't actually inevitable! That's because only a small percentage of Americans actually have this sort of money. In fact, most of us are barely hanging on, and most people die nearly penniless. (Here's a thought, do a play about that.)

'Darkly comedic' is pushing it, though there were two or three masterfully crafted moments of levity, thanks to the very talented cast. But 'suspenseful'? If we're leaning forward in our seats, it's because we're all trying to figure out what the heck is going on. I've been thinking about this play for 48 hours, and I can't even say for sure who the protagonist of this play is. We almost cared about Nurse Tina (played lovingly by J. Nicole Brown), until we find out that she's actually a horrible person, and then there was no one left to care about. Except Todd (Raymond Fox), perhaps, but he even he was too unbelievably weenie to really connect. And we certainly don't care about the dying Maxine (Deanna Dunagan) or her daughter (Louise Lamson) because they are both just unbearably awful people who don't even like each other.

To add insult to injury, in the final scene two completely new characters are introduced, while Tina, Todd and the daughter aren't in it at all. This final scene was the last straw; if you're going to make us sit through scene after unmotivated scene, monologue after uninterrupted monologue, plot twist after contrived plot twist... at least give us some closure on the three other characters we just spent 75 minutes with.

There are legions of great plays out there which deserve a run at a prestigious theater like Lookingglass. Plays about hope, about real human suffering, about redemption and war, and the weariness and uncertainty most of us are experiencing in this post 9/11 America. I sincerely hope Lookingglass will go in search of one of these, next time around.

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From This Author - Cara Winter

Cara is a writer, director & actress with nearly 20 years experience in the professional theater. Writing for the stage since 1999, blogger since 2006, (read more...)