George is Dead but the Klunch is Up and Running

Washington’s newest theatre company, the Klunch, opened its doors with a winning production of George is Dead, an off-beat black comedy by Elaine May. A one-act send up of wealth, narcissism, and cluelessness, George is Dead is not standard fare for a DC stage, especially around Christmastime, when feel-good musicals and various incarnations of A Christmas Carol abound.  

Director Ian Allen, co-founder of the Klunch, sets the play at Christmastime—but the holly jollies end there. Carla (Fiona Blackshaw) is waiting for her husband, Michael, to return home. She keeps vigil by the phone while “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas” warbles from the radio. In fact, what it’s beginning to look like is the end of her marriage. Subway delays have forced her to miss Michael’s talk at an Amnesty International event, and she suspects that Michael will find her absence unforgivable. She is right. Instead of focusing on whatever urgent human rights topic he has expounded upon, Michael is dwelling on her failure to appear in the audience. Sulking at a bar well past midnight, he refuses to return her calls or come home.

Meanwhile, Carla plays host to an unannounced guest. The imperious Doreen (Kerri Rambow) arrives at her door, distraught (but only a little) after receiving news of her husband George’s death in a skiing accident in Aspen. Doreen and Carla haven’t seen each other in years. Carla’s mother was Doreen’s nanny when they were children. Now, in late middle age and in need of babying, Doreen turns to Carla, and the play hits its stride as a wickedly funny satire on the well to do.

Having always paid others to sort things out for her, Doreen is past fifty and utterly incompetent. May’s implication is that the rich, with servants as stand-ins for parents, enjoy a continual childhood. Doreen has never experienced loss, and she can’t conceptualize death. “I don’t have the depth to feel this pain,” she remarks. “I want to feel grief,” she chirps casually. “I’m just this bitter, thoughtless woman. May I stay here tonight?” She requests a nightie and a snack (specifying the types of cheese she would like), as if she were a patron at a luxury inn.

Rambow’s acting is astonishingly accomplished. She plays a charming and unwittingly funny Doreen. Blackshaw plays Carla convincingly; she is warm, competent, and likeable, but her average-sized ego is no match for the outsized egos of the narcissists surrounding her. At the end of the play, she finally asserts herself, but her opponent, in this case, is a corpse. She indulges the living, from Michael to Doreen to her mother.
 

two people talking
John Tweel and Fiona Bradshaw in Elaine May's George Is Dead. Photo by Chelsea Bland. 

Michael (John Tweel) returns home while Doreen is offstage, changing into Carla’s nightie. He begins sniping at Carla. Sarcastic, needy, and unwilling to let her get a word in edgewise, Michael comes across as a child, too—perhaps a teenager. He is stunned to see Doreen emerge from the bedroom, dragging the TV with her so that she can watch it from the couch. “My husband was killed a few hours ago in an avalanche in Aspen,” Doreen explains. “And although I haven’t seen Carla in a while, she was the first one I came to for help.” Michael’s response: “I don’t understand. That’s our TV.” So much for the grand humanitarian. In a moment of irony, Michael tells Carla he has ended his membership in Amnesty International to protest the organization’s prohibition against working on US-based issues. Michael cannot extend his human rights concerns to the domestic sphere, either. He shakes his head at Carla’s willingness to let herself be victimized by others, packs his bags, and walks out.

A collective incorporating many impressive DC theatre artists, the Klunch seems poised to bring a different sensibility to the DC stage.

One of the funniest moments in this very funny play involves the discussion around George’s body. Doreen can’t imagine that she has to sort out the details of transporting George’s body back from Aspen and arranging a funeral—“What do you mean by ‘shipping?’” she asks Carla. “Don’t the lawyers handle that?” Rather than dealing with ordering a casket and arranging for transport, Doreen is prepared to continue paying for the Aspen hotel room. Carla takes pains to explain, “It’s wrong to leave someone who died in his room.”

three women on stage
Fiona Blackshaw, Kerri Rambow, and Jean H. Miller in George is Dead. Photo by Chelsea Bland.

In the morning, Doreen refuses to get up and go to the funeral home. Carla’s mother arrives and coaxes Doreen into in a dress, as if she were a three-year-old, and they take her to the funeral home, where she interacts with George’s corpse as if he were alive. She tells him he looks uncomfortable. She demands a hug. She lifts the cold, lifeless body up and wraps its arms around her. Then the reality hits her. “George is dead!” she wails, truly understanding this for the first time. The poignant moment is undercut by an abrupt ending. Stung by her mother’s attentions to Doreen and all out of empathy, Carla is asked by the funeral home official what to do with the body. “Burn it!” she spits.
 

two women craying
Jean H. Miller and Kerri Rambow in George is Dead.
Photo by Chelsea Bland. 

The play, in general, is smart and funny, and the Klunch’s production is a rollicking good time and a welcome departure from DC’s more predictable fare. A collective incorporating many impressive DC theatre artists, the Klunch seems poised to bring a different sensibility to the DC stage. Founder and artistic director Ian Allen co-founded and ran Cherry Red Productions, which operated from 1995 until 2011 and was known for producing raunchy, outrageous work. If George is Dead is any indication, the Klunch is committed to offbeat entertainment but is aiming, too, for some seriousness. DC audiences looking for serious fun are likely to be pleased. 

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