Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre has a penchant for two-character plays with two-word titles. On the heels of the March/April run of the racially charged “The Niceties” comes Matt Schatz’s dark comedy “The Burdens,” about dysfunctional siblings with a bicoastal relationship.
Although “The Burdens” was curated by MST’s former artistic director Chris O’Connor, his successor, Kevin R. Free, puts a personal stamp on the production with taut direction that shows a true flair for comedic timing.
Robin Virginie plays Jane, a harried lawyer and (happily?) married mother of three (with a fourth on the way), living in a South Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. Her slacker brother Mordy (Ian Brodsky) lives in California, where he works a menial job in a pharmacy while pursuing his dream of rock stardom. In truth, Mordy isn’t much of a songwriter or singer (we hear a few of his compositions) and has never really followed through on anything in his life, depending on his older sister for both financial and emotional support.
Jane and Mordy never talk; they text, DM or email, as Generation Z is wont to do. And mostly what they text about is Zad Zad, their cruel, selfish and largely senile grandfather, whose nursing home expenses are eating up their mother’s meager retirement income. The actors stand apart on the stage and speak their lines; you never even see their phones or computers. But the audience remains aware that they are not actually talking to one another, but communicating via text.
Zad Zad, or Solomon Berman, is never seen, but he is acutely felt throughout the play, beginning with the first line of dialogue. “He called her a cunt!” Jane texts to Mordy. “He called our mother a cunt and wished she would die!” But because they’re texting, autocorrect changes the word to “cant,” which causes confusion and becomes an (eventually tiresome) running joke throughout the play.
Schatz clearly comes from the Neil Simon school of Jewish comedy. The dialogue flies fast and furiously (faster than either sibling would be able to type it, actually), but the actors’ timing is impeccable, so the dark subject matter consistently gets laughs.
The play becomes even darker when Jane decides that Zad Zad (who has just reached his 100th birthday) will never die by natural causes, and so decides to do him in. She inveigles her brother to inquire at the pharmacy where he works about an undetectable method of murder, and Mordy discovers that since their grandfather takes blood thinners, a hefty dose of Vitamin K would prove lethal. Death by kale (or a kale smoothie!).
Of course, since this is a comedy, everything that could possibly go wrong, does. Mordy loses his job when his boss thinks that the OD might be meant for him, and so he moves back east into his mother’s small apartment. Jane’s perfect marriage isn’t as perfect as it appears. Complications ensue, with a few surprises that I won’t spoil. “Arsenic and Old Lace” proved that murder could be funny; “The Burdens” brings that idea into the 21st Century, complete with modern technology (and nutrition!).
Virginie and Brodsky have a lot to do here, but deliver their lines with aplomb and never miss a beat. Which is important, because timing is everything with this kind of humor. Credit at least some of that to Free’s direction, which delivers madcap momentum with timely blackouts for the audience to catch its breath.
Kudos also to stage manager Arielle Legere and her crew for a multi-functional set that allows the MST’s small stage to serve as three different apartments, a hospital corridor and other locations.
“The Burdens” takes its title from an incident in the siblings’ past, when a friend of the family mistook the family name for Burden instead of Berman. Zad Zad loved it and never corrected his friend, and the children adopted new personas to match their new names. So every so often, schleppy Mordy would become Zack Burden, complete with a superhero flourish and theme music, and Jane would transform into a person who liked “L.A. Law” over “Thirtysomething” — who embraced a show where people actually did things instead of merely feeling them.
Comedy and murder aside, “The Burdens” does remind us that human beings need to talk to one another, preferably in person; texts and emails can’t bridge emotional distance in the same way. Mordy and Jane need not only to straighten out their lives, but to reconnect as brother and sister. That is the real burden that these characters face.
“The Burdens” runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through May 22. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.