Jeff Talbott established himself as a writer of great promise with the MCC Theater production of his first play The Submission in 2011. This excellent actor/playwright joined The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) during the 2012-13 season, has had multiple readings and workshops in various regional theatres, and has been writing musicals with composer Will Van Dyke. Now TACT has mounted The Gravedigger’s Lullaby, which will assure his place in the current list of important writers for our theatre.
This new work, set on “the edge of the city” in a time that is “Not Now. Before.” is a one-act ninety-minute original drama with no source material, unless you consider the influence of young Eugene O’Neill (there are faint wafts of Desire Under The Elms) and the craft of Arthur Miller. Lullaby’s “Balen” is the protagonist, a man who makes a very modest living as a grave digger (in some time prior to the invention of the back hoe, I assume) who sweats through his days with the help only of his two strong arms and a shovel. He lives with his wife Margot and their infant daughter in a house that is truly a shack in which bed sheets and blankets serve as walls separating the living area from the sleeping quarters. He is joined in his work by his friend Gizzer who is a live-by-the-seat-of-his-pants character with a past that has left him embittered about the wealthy, the successful, the accomplished.
Into their lives one day comes just such a man, the son of a local establishment that was started by his grandfather, and has until now been run by his father, a “mean” but very successful entrepreneur. The son, Charles Timmens, has lost his way in trying to find a suitable plot in which to bury his father, who is ill and close to death.
Timmens is the catalyst who brings this story to a violent climax, and Mr. Talbott builds it slowly from a simmer to a boil, finishing with a coda that is honest and satisfying, and gives resonance to the play’s title. A remarkable cast of four brings it all vividly to life. Ted Koch joined TACT in 2014-2015 and has done three productions with them, but he’s one of those actors who’ve received all sorts of awards in all sorts of LORT and regional theatres. Here he is playing the title role, and his performance is so grounded that from his opening moments alone onstage, he commands our attention. His many confrontations are handled by him superbly and it takes little time for us to be committed to rooting for him.
His lovely wife is played by an actress with the highly original name of K.K. Moggie, an adjunct professor at PACE University with an MFA in acting at Columbia University. She has vast credits off-Broadway and has found a way for her “Margot” to show us how much she loves the man she married, and to make Margot totally relevant to today. She could be the granddaughter of Maggie Wylie in What Every Woman Knows because she too can make her job of supporting a man emotionally into one that in no way diminishes her or makes her anti-feminist. She makes of Margot someone we’d be delighted to spend more time with.
Todd Lawson has the unenviable task of making Gizzer more than just a loud mouth with a bitter brain and low self esteem. I can’t agree with most of what he spouts, but it’s clear in his performance that his rage is, in his mind, totally justified. One can almost pity him. Jeremy Beck completes the quartet onstage and he brings an urban and educated son of a wealthy man to life, again managing to earn our respect and compassion though his Charles Timmens has been tainted by too close exposure to his father, a “mean man” whose funeral he must arrange in the course of this play.
Director Jenn Thompson has been with TACT since 2002 and she’s worked here with assurance and invention. The set she has envisioned has been designed by Wilson Chin and makes good use of the small stage at the Beckett Theatre, clearly defining the shack, the graveyard, and the lanes leading from it. Matthew Richards’ lighting design helps us to focus all through the play and Will Van Dyke has contributed occasional background music that allows us to envision what’s about to unfold. Tracy Christensen’s costume design adds greatly to help us into a world of people we might never have met on our own.
It’s always a treat to discover a highly original treasure that’s not based on a film, novel, story, or even the personal life of the playwright. I asked Mr. Talbott what his source for this play was, and he answered: “My own crazy brain.” I for one would very much like to see future examples of what that brain might have for us, because this time out it’s a winner
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Gravedigger’s Lullaby plays at TACT, performing at the Beckett Theater, in Theater Row – 410 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.