How many star vehicles for Olympia Dukakis can one theater-going year contain? Well this year I’ve seen two, and they were remarkably similar experiences. She is undeniably a fine actor and I understand the impulse to put her at the center of a show. Both times I’ve seen her on stage this year, I was impressed with her ability to communicate so immediately with her audience. Yet on both occasions, she was ultimately let down by odd or lackluster material that didn’t do her justice. In February, she starred in an Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a heavy-handed psychoanalytic tragedy about an artist-drifter who comes to act as a grim reaper for an elderly woman coming to the close of her days in a European villa. I didn’t write about this show at the time, but it was largely unsatisfying and provided a template for Dukakis recent stage appearances here in Los Angeles.
This weekend she wraps up a run in Morris Panych’s Vigil at the Mark Tape Forum downtown. It’s been one of the weakest season’s for the Taper in many years with five productions (one of which was actually on the Ahmanson stage) virtually all of which were either solo or small cast star-vehicles or half-baked revivals. (The exception was Theresa Rebeck’s world premiere Poor Behavior which gave the season its only real comic bite.) Panych’s odd-little dark comedy doesn’t change the season’s overall course. Vigil is a two-hander about a man, played by Marco Barricelli, who has come to see his dying aunt at her request. The aunt, played by Dukakis says almost nothing throughout the whole evening. Dukakis has a total of nearly 5 lines with the entire two hours taken up with a monologue delivered by the nephew. He’s a neurotic fellow whose relentless unanswered questions and stories end up telling us all about his own life and family. Dukakis, who has only one line in the entire first hour, meanwhile gives a wonderful, nuanced performance that is entirely about her body language. It’s a testament to her craft and it certainly the best part about the show.
Unfortunately, the play is fairly weak overall. Panych strings together short, staccato scenes punctuating them with morose punch lines often emphasizing the neurotic nephew’s desire for this whole episode to over and done with. There is an element of surreal absurdity to the play and the nephew’s unplanned visit soon stretches into months and months rather than days. His eagerness to see the aunt dead soon gives way to a sentimental story about loneliness and friendship in the face of death. Barricelli delivered Panych’s one liners with some zing, which one would hope for since Panych also severed as the director in this run. But I often felt the whole show was holding back, taking the easy way out of resolving what are some troubling scenarios and questions right down to those about suicide and our universal mortality. Panych is so wedded to the clever structural elements and turns of events that make up the story that the show feels forced and less funny than it might be otherwise. He fortunately has a very fine actor in Dukakis who can help carry the weaker parts of this material. But she deserves somehting a bit meatier than this outing.