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I felt jealous of the gentleman sitting in front of me at a performance of Theater Rhinoceros' "Dead and Breathing" last week. For 10 of the show's 90 minutes, he escaped, drifting off to sleep shortly after Carolyn (Shirley A. Smallwood), remarkably hale and hearty in the face of uterine cancer, learned that that her hospice care aide, Veronika (Cece Suazo), was a transgender woman.
"There's a tranny in my bedroom! There's a tranny in my bedroom!" squealed Carolyn, Smallwood's delivery leaving it unclear whether the old woman was appalled or tickled to have bragging rights.
"What happened right after that?" my fellow theatergoer asked me following the curtain call. Nothing happened right after that. Before that, either. It was all wrong. Wackadoodle, off-the-rails wrong, recklessly careening between comedy and tragedy, heading in one direction, then switching routes altogether.
The play opens with Veronika giving Carolyn a spongebath. The ladies yak about the hunky neighborhood UPS man. Veronika scrubs what she refers to as her employer's "happy flaps." They discuss whether it would be humanly possible to insert a watermelon in one's anus.
The doorbell rings, and Veronika steps away. Carolyn gets out of the tub, offering the audience a significant dose of gratuitous nudity. Then she checks to see if there are enough meds on hand to kill herself. Nope. Rats! This makes her feel sooo grumpy. Hmmm. Maybe Veronika will help her commit suicide.
Side note: Carolyn was once married to a guy named Leonard. And somehow she ended up with 80-odd million dollars, none of which seem to have been used to spruce up her shabby, bare-bones apartment.
Not in his wildest naptime dreams could the fellow in front of me have cobbled together a series of moments as tonally zig-zagging and cause-and-effect-free as the beats of "Dead and Breathing." However flawed playwright Chisa Hutchinson's plotting may be, her dialogue has a certain casual credibility. It's possible to imagine that, after spending endless hours together, these two isolated characters' rambling, shit-shooting, confessional conversations could evolve into a meaningful friendship.
But there's little that feels natural in the way their chatter is delivered by director AeJay Mitchell and his cast of two. When the actresses don't seem to be stumbling over their lines (frequently), they're overplaying them, alternately encouraging rimshots and jerking at tear ducts. At one point, Carolyn asks Veronika to press a pillow over her face to relieve her misery. Sometimes a nap in the theater can serve the same end.
"Dead and Breathing," through Oct. 6. Theatre Rhinoceros, Gateway Theater, 215 Jackson St., SF. Tickets ($20-$40): (800) 838-3006, www.therhino.com