Review: “Death Tax” (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

J. Nicole Brooks (L) and Deanna Dunagan in "Death Tax". Photo by Liz Lauren
J. Nicole Brooks (L) and Deanna Dunagan in “Death Tax”.
Photo by Liz Lauren

Show:  Death Tax

Company: Lookingglass Theater Comany

Venue: Lookingglass Theatre

Die Roll: 10

The scenery was sparse: a two-inch-wide white outline around a 20-foot black square on the floor.  From the moment I walked into “Death Tax” at Lookingglass Theatre, I got the sense that the show was going to be entirely about the dialogue, the characters, the relationships.  And I wasn’t wrong.  While there were some furniture pieces that came on and off of John Musial’s ultra-simple set, the three-quarter thrust staging of Lucas Hnath’s script was all about the angles created by placing people in certain ways on the stage itself, and the angles that people take with each other.  There’s an old maxim that “Everybody’s got an angle” or “Everyone’s working their own angle”.  And that rings completely true for the characters in this play.

At its heart, “Death Tax” is really about fear.  And with fear being one of the most primal of emotions, it is a work that can evoke powerful reactions.  One might guess from the title that the fear of death is a major part of the play, and it is.  A fear of taxes isn’t really a part of the play at all.  The title refers to a basic plot point, almost a gimmick, which gets the play started.  Maxine (played by Deanna Dunagan) is an invalid who has been given a short time to live.  She suspects her daughter (Louise Lamson) of trying to hasten her death.  The supposed reason for this suspicion is that there is an impending change in tax law that will lead to the Daughter’s inheritance shrinking after the start of the new year.  So, Maxine strikes a bargain with her nurse, Tina (brought to life by J. Nicole Brooks).  Tina conspires with her former lover, Todd (Raymond Fox) who is an administrator at the nursing home where the action all takes place.

Maxine fears dying.  That’s evident from the first few moments of the play, when she accuses Tina of being part of the Daughter’s plot to off her.  But Maxine isn’t the only one who lets fear drive her actions.  Tina fears never seeing her son again.  He’s been taken by her ex-husband to Haiti, and is out of her reach.  Todd fears losing Tina, whom he never really had a hold on to begin with.  And the Daughter fears feeling the regret and anguish that so many adult children do when they lose their parents and never had the chance to say they’re sorry.

For the first four scenes (there are 5 total), we see an ill-fated extortion scheme play out.  It’s a scheme conceived by its own victim, and yet it is embraced by the swindlers, too.  Everyone thinks they’re going to get something out of it.  It is clear who each character is, how they relate to each other, and what they have at stake.  And while none of the characters are particularly likable, director Heidi Stillman’s cast brings forth a number of slices of life that are believable and real.  Fox’s portrayal of the spurned nice guy who turns vicious when he realizes he’s being used was particularly spot on, and a little painful to watch (in a good way).

Everything feels like it is ominously heading toward a bad end, a feeling that is helped by the lighting design of Christine A. Binder.  The fact that with each scene the lighting grid physically descended further into the audience’s view made the encroachment of time palpable.  As things got out of control within the story, the world outside pressed in.  And then, suddenly, there was a 20-year jump in the play’s time line.  The impending fiasco of a failing swindle is never seen.  Instead, we see Maxine’s room two decades later.  In passing we discover that Tina’s plan backfired, and she was arrested and deported.  We don’t get updated as to what happened to Todd.  Brooks and Fox take on other characters, and the Daughter is mentioned a good deal when Maxine has a long-winded speech about how badly her daughter treated her (which stands in stark contrast to what was seen in the earlier scenes).

I struggled with this jump into the future.  It seems to be a commentary about how medicine may be advancing too far.  That we are able to keep people alive past their usefulness to society.  What started out as a play about people working each other over in order to get what they wanted, shifted to being about how money will soon be able to keep people alive, and the iniquities that arise when medical care goes only to those who can pay a lot of money for it.  Really, it feels like a separate play from what came before, and a bit like a betrayal of the audience.  And yet, there is one thing that remains true to the first four-fifths of the show.  Maxine is still working her angle.  She is still afraid to die.  And, she is willing to say whatever she can to manipulate whomever she can into keeping her alive for as long as possible.  She lies to her grandson about all sorts of things to evoke sympathy from him.  And in the end, she realizes that he’s probably lied to her when he says he’ll think about helping to cover the expenses that will keep her alive.

I do think this play raises some interesting questions and things to ponder about once we’ve walked away from the theatre.  That’s good.  What I wish, is that we’d have been shown the complete story of the original set of characters, or that we had been introduced to Maxine in a way that we’d still care about her when she ends up being the only of the original four characters to make it to the end of the play.  The acting, the direction, and the lighting were superb.  The script was, too, for about 80% of the way through.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Death is taxing on everyone, especially those who don’t die.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”