George Is Dead, and Even Marlo Thomas Can’t Resurrect This Play

Oh, dear. And I was so looking forward to seeing Elaine May's new comedy, too.

Most of the rest of you — those of you unfortunate enough to have gone to see this dismal flop at Arizona Theater Company earlier this week or last —were probably more interested in seeing the television and film star Marlo Thomas, who is the star of George Is Dead, which is what May has named her cheerless one-act. If so, you got off easier, as Thomas' giddy performance as a ditzy millionairess proved to be its single saving grace.

Dead is right. Who knew that May, a comic legend, could write and direct such a stiff? Furthermore, how can the woman who wrote Heaven Can Wait and Tootsie have pinched off such an unfunny comedy? The author of the lauded play Adaptation and of countless classic comedy sketches with partner Mike Nichols has turned a potentially appealing premise into a dreary mishmash that takes swipes at various topical issues but never lands long enough on anything to make a real statement.

Thomas does what she can to breathe comic life into a character whose nearly every line is sniffled and whined. Her Doreen has just discovered that her husband, George, has died in a skiing accident in Aspen. She, a wealthy Manhattan socialite, has no friends, so she seeks out the daughter of her former nanny for comfort. Carla hasn't seen Doreen in years and isn't happy to now, having spent her life resenting the attention Doreen got while Carla was ignored by Mom. Carla is poor; she and her husband, a teacher, live in a seedy walk-up that, when she arrives there, Doreen finds "shabby and nest-like."

The opportunity for a meaningful discourse on the working class is dashed in favor of a string of sitcom setups, most of which fall flat — although none so flat as the death rattle delivered by the long, misplaced scene in which George discusses politics with his chauffeur. My companion struggled to stay awake during this sequence, but I found myself utterly captivated by its awfulness. How, I wondered, could this scene be so uninteresting, so unmotivated? And so long? What, exactly, did it have to do with the scene that preceded it?

Next to nothing, as it turned out. The payoff, such as it was, turned out to be the fourth and final scene, which belongs mostly to Thomas and Julia Brothers, a formidable actress whose playing of Carla left me confused. Was she a staunch character thrown for a loop by her confusing day, or an easily befuddled woman struggling to stand her ground? Either way, she's trapped in her tiny apartment with Doreen, and the pair banter about the past and the present in what feels like an overlong setup for a greater point about how the rich are always with us. And then . . . nothing. The play, which can only have been booked by Arizona Theatre Company so that the troupe could trumpet May and Thomas as part of its season, simply stops. There's no resolution; no moral; no reason to leave feeling that one has been offered anything but the chance to watch a TV legend at work.

Which, frankly, proved not to be enough.