Given today’s most popular modes of communication, it was only a matter of time before a writer presented a play where the characters interact chiefly via texts, emails and voicemails. It is the way we live now, and it presents some fresh food for thought, as in Matt Schatz’s dark comedy The Burdens, now onstage at Urbanite Theatre.
Still, that conceit would only hold our attention for so long if there weren’t an intriguing story behind it. Here, that story gradually unravels as we meet adult siblings Jane (Morgan Lavenstein) and Mordy (Jake Fallon) Berman. She’s a hard-driving lawyer with three kids and a fourth on the way; he’s a sweet but not successful would-be musician paying the bills through a job at a pharmacy. They’re 3,000 miles apart—she in New Jersey, he in California when the play begins—and, being thirtysomethings, texts are their primary way of staying in touch, allowing them to fold laundry, eat cereal or otherwise act while on the phone.
But we all know how texts work, don’t we? You can type something perfectly innocuous into that little screen, but there’s no tone to tell the receiver what you really mean (and auto correct is a big problem). Are you joking, serious, or somewhere in between? That question becomes increasingly important when Jane takes her complaints about their 100-year-old grandfather, known as Zad Zad, to the next level. We’re talking murder here.
Or are we? Sure, Zad Zad is a pain in the butt, living on and on forever in a nursing home while his daughter (the sibs’ mom) foots the bill, despite Zad Zad’s history of mistreating her as well as Jane and Mordy over the years. But would the two really conspire to end his life? Or could a misunderstood text or email be to blame for a possible crime?
Mostly, throughout Schatz’s 80-minute play, we see the two actors staring out at us as they “read” their messages, not looking at each other as they would in person. But, unlike their characters, we do get the full sense of the emotions behind them. Jane is full of energy and action; she can be aggressive and angry, while Mordy is awkward and more passive, taking his lead from her. Lavenstein and Fallon are well-paired here; under the direction of Urbanite co-artistic director Brendan Ragan, they are fun, sad and believable as a sister and brother who can wound each other deeply but still care.
Schatz knows how to build momentum as the plot escalates from a seemingly tossed-off suggestion to a more concrete approach to eliminating Zad Zad. (Schatz is a composer as well, so there’s also a song or two in the show performed by the not terribly talented Mordy.) The Burdens is frequently laugh out loud funny, but it’s also a little bit heartbreaking at times. That’s a challenging mix to sustain, but The Burdens succeeds.
The Burdens continues through Nov. 27; for tickets, call (941) 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.