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I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Don't we all hope that if our life flashes before our eyes as we die, what we see won't be boring? That's the most frustrating flaw of Kirk Marcoe's play, I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye, which just opened at Theatre Row's Clurman Theater and makes the least of a potentially great idea.

There's absolutely nothing invigorating, theatrically or otherwise, about the life that Bob Wright (David Chandler) watches unfold as he lies dying from the final stages of cancer. He's bed-ridden and completely dependent on his family, though neither his wife Alice (Jennifer Van Dyck) nor his son Timothy (Matthew Stadelmann) show much in the way of outward concern. Their essential disinterest causes him to retreat further into his own mind, which, despite occasional moments of lucidity, has eroded much as his body has.

As his family isn't aware of how much he perceives, they've taken to treating him much as any other piece of furniture. The result is that Bob sees and hears things others would prefer he didn't, which includes his wife and son's continuous, acidic bickering about what's actually best for Bob; more arguing from the Wright family's black housekeeper Minerva (Cherene Snow) and her daughter Bertha (Tamara Bass); and Timothy's drug-and-alcohol-fueled sexual escapades with Bertha and another young woman named Vicky (Jessma Evans).

This all adds up to a tremendous amount of talk that does little more than add bulk to the play, which doesn't have a strong enough foundation to support the weight. Marcoe has scripted a few sequences that find Bob's memory irrupting with images of war that grow to include the other characters in jagged, surprising ways that effectively underscore Bob's increasing mental instability. And Bob and Alice share one tender moment of connection late in the play that may leave you wondering how much of it the characters actually experienced and how much was only imagined.

But the majority of scenes are alternately leaden and fluffy to the point of inconsequentiality. A confused subplot about Bob's boat, which was once owned by a Nazi, apparently exists only to give the play an exciting finish. (Though, the way it's staged - by Marcoe, who directs the play with only scattershot insight - this isn't satisfactorily achieved.) One especially head-scratching scene ends with most of the characters lying on the living room floor for no good reason. Still other spoken scenes occur simultaneously, underscoring similarities between characters most playwrights would point up with just normal dialogue.

At least Takeshi Kata's set, which comprises three sparsely decorated rooms in the Wright house, facilitates this nicely, and helps focus your attention (usually on Bob). Matthew Richards's lights also work nicely, though a large rectangle of fluorescent lights gracing the upstage wall suggest a more exciting, conceptually adventurous play than the one that eventually emerges. Jeremy J. Lee's sound design is also helpful in establishing and maintaining atmosphere.

But of the actors, only Chandler achieves a similar effect. That's mostly because he moves and says so little that he proves strangely charismatic in comparison to the other performers' histrionics. He doesn't provide any particular insight into the plight of the handicapped or the ignored, but neither does his characterization as scripted for the most part. Snow is generally believable as the housekeeper caught between her work and her home life, but everyone else comes across as almost entirely detached from reality.

The entire play would benefit from being better grounded, so that the juxtaposition between Bob's confused existence and the real world could generate legitimate pathos and credible conflict between the characters. At the very least, that kind of tweaking would result in more heat than Marcoe has managed to imbue in I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye as it currently stands.

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I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye
Through February 20
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
Clurman Theater, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200