Well, BareStage Productions’ musical comedy “Death and Other Hobbies” didn’t make me want to off myself, so that’s good. It focuses on Corbin Vickers (Alexander Kownatzki), who throws a party for his eccentric cast of friends and family before committing suicide. This soon unravels into a murder mystery party when someone is killed, an event that also spurs plenty of ridiculous shenanigans.There are a lot of twists in “Hobbies.” Many aspects of the play — such as the death, the plotline and the characters — don’t turn out to be what or who you think they are. But the problem with turning the tables is that if you turn too hard, you end up right back where you started. Such is the case here. The play sets out to attack stereotypes, but every time a drop of dimension is added to characters, the self-awareness of the play regresses their development.
Whenever a work becomes self-aware, it is interrupted by the writer(s) — UC Berkeley students Weston Scott and Jake Tully in this case. I mean, the British orphan Regina Orphan (Devon Simpson) sings, “I think this might be foreshadowing” near the beginning of the play. As the plot becomes less believable, the demented butcher Risperdal Zarconium (Jacob Straus) says, “We’ve accepted enough absurd premises. I think we can let this one slide.” There’s even a PSA for British orphans set to Sarah McLachlan after the characters acknowledge that they’ve made fun of a large group of people. There is no fourth wall present, and self-awareness occurs so often that it feels like the play is really about the playwrights.
In the attempt to develop the characters, the writers created little subconflicts between them, such as a woman’s love for another unattainable woman, a distant father-son relationship and uncertainty about how to cope with death. The farcical overtones do not mix well with the drawn-out serious moments. Sometimes, the look at Pat Marshall’s (Adam Niemann) identity crisis as a gay man with an unsupportive father is touching, but dealing with this kind of issue is uncomfortable within the context of a farce. Fleshing out characters here needs to be done in a more subtle manner.Don’t get me wrong. The play is filled with quotable, hilarious moments. Who doesn’t love a Colonel Sanders archetype constantly making food jokes like “the only time I surprise someone is when I’m in the vegetable aisle of the Piggly Wiggly” in a Southern accent? Or Cockney faux-clowns making balloon animals of Winston Churchill out of condoms for children? And what’s more, the cast is largely talented at pulling off these jokes.
Because the play is a comedy and uses the word “death” in its title, I assumed that it would be a black comedy. My expectations for this involve a hope for metaphysical heights of humorous grandeur, on par with an accessible John Donne. In other words, I pray for an Edgar Allen Poe lookalike to have a candlelit dinner with a raven. I live for these comedies, which is ironic, because they revolve around death. The medium itself is ironic because it derives humor from heavy subject matter.
However, “Hobbies” scarcely derives its humor from the macabre. Its jokes are all over the place, touching on sex, gender, etc. Instead, it’s more of an absurdist indulgence with the odd centerpiece being death, which is misleading for morbid weirdos like me.
But just as 2007’s “Death at a Funeral” overcame its faults with slapstick, “Hobbies” does so with witticisms. The play only becomes displeasing when it is subject to analysis (as in this review — ooh, how self-aware of me). But on mindless face value, you will laugh your face off — not literally. Hopefully. Mindlessness is a hobby these days, right?