The subject of each of Frederick Stroppel's five one-act plays which comprise Mortal Coils is death. Though the evening as a whole is hit-or-miss, Stroppel does demonstrate that the end of life can be a laughing matter.
All five plays were directed by Ed Setrakian, using the same set (a series of rotating panels by Ken Rothchild) and the same group of six intrepid actors (Bob Adrian, Patricia Dodd, Lisa Eichhorn, Paul Geier, Stelio Savante, and Stanley Taub). Aside from the general subject matter, the plays have no real connections between them, and while each displays some creativity, none is wholly successful.
Take, for example, the second piece of the evening, entitled "Domestic Violence." Its connection with death is tenuous at best; it starts off looking like a man (Taub) will need to be talked out of killing himself by his wife (Dodd), but it ends up as more of a play on what exactly constitutes a perfect marriage. The two actors are appealing (and, indeed, they appear again alone together in the fifth play of the evening, completely unrelated to this one), but the play, despite its beginning and inconclusive ending, doesn't feel like it belongs.
A similar problem faces the fourth segment, "Judgment Call," in which three professional umpires (Adrian, Taub, and Savante) learn what price conviction and dedication to your profession can have. This one, sharp, funny, and quick-paced, may be the best of the evening's offerings, but feels like it belongs in another collection of plays. Its connection with death is minor, but still stronger than the one in "Domestic Violence."
The remaining three plays, "Soulmates," "Friendly Fire," and "After the Ball," all gleefully embrace Stroppel's idea. The first is about what happens when two serial killers (Eichhorn and Adrian) meet, and discuss their career as nonchalantly as might two accountants or computer programmers. It's clever, but the joke wears thin slightly before the play reaches its conclusion. "Friendly Fire" finds two New York gangster-types (Adrian and Geier) in a blood-red waiting room somewhere between life and the afterlife, where they must finally confront their choices and their relationship with each other.
Though it's the least funny, "After the Ball" best defines the evening. A husband and wife (Taub and Dodd again) returning from an impossibly entertaining funeral must come to grips with their own lives, the lies they tell themselves about who they are or what they do, and how they are perceived by others. It's not spectacularly deep or meaningful, but it is thought-provoking, and the vivid descriptions of the antics at the funeral provide the evening's most satisfying mental visuals.
If far from perfect, Mortal Coils does have its memorable moments - watching two gangster dance their way into the afterlife, or seeing an older man find such great pleasure in a simple clown nose are nice touches. Mortal Coils isn't the type of show that's going to appeal to everyone, and if you're coping with the loss of a close friend or relative, you'll find little in the way of solace. For everyone else, though, you may find it a surprisingly amusing, if mild, good time.