Dead on Arrival

The Toaster is filled with stale bread.

The set is simply a battered iron park bench, a suitcase, and a white curtain that drapes down from the back wall to cover the floor. You probably suspect that this means you're in for some kind of wait for some kind of Godot. Yep. Which is exactly the trouble: You're onto The Toaster (through Sunday, Oct. 30, at On the Boards; 206-917-9888, www.ontheboards.org), the debut play from reputable Seattle writer Rebecca Brown (The Terrible Girls), long before it thinks you are. You sit there hoping that the piece will stealthily creep around behind you at some point and show you up for the jaded, presumptuous theatergoer you are. Nope.

The evening begins when a yammering fussbudget (Mary Ewald) and her browbeaten sibling (Tim Hyland) arrive on the scene worrying about the time, not noticing that behind them on the suitcase sits the weary old woman (Susan Corzatte) they've obviously come to meet. Once they do notice her, the yammering fussbudget and the browbeaten sibling bicker over ridiculously unimportant details while the weary old woman sits between them with a beatific smile on her face and promises the pair her toaster and her bread knife. If you don't know that this woman is about to die, and that these two are about to regret it, you need to get out more.

Brown's belabored absurdist rumination on the mercilessness of mortality and the pitilessness of remorse is so blatant that it initially seems she might be pulling one over on us, that the show's first hour is a grand setup meant to lull us into some false sense of superiority that Act 2 will surely pull right out from under us. The play's language, particularly Ewald's nervous ramblings, sounds intentionally thick and dated—"If you really do find this timetable acceptable, I shall refrain from suggesting otherwise"—and the sentiment almost spoofy. How else to accept such eye-rolling obviousness as the moment in which the old woman elegi-acally wonders what next spring's bulbs will look like, or her plea for the pair "to be good to each other after I leave," or, worse, when she lies down in a white nightgown and asks, "Is it getting dark?"

Brown isn't joking, though. She should feel very lucky that she has New City director John Kazanjian and this ensemble backing her or her first attempt at playwriting would go belly-up long before Corzatte does at the end of the first act. Which brings to mind the noble sacrifices these performers are willing to make in the name of Brown's sincerity: A singularly effective Corzatte, in a bit that would be unbearably bathetic in other hands (and almost is, anyway), disrobes in order for the devoted Hyland to quietly wash her before her leave-taking. Ewald, meanwhile, is forced into overdrive—she has to talk and talk and talk and find some way to insert meaningful nuance and humor into all of it. That she sometimes manages is more a tribute to her considerable skills than Brown's affectations.

Not that the author doesn't grant us tiny gems here and there. When she does, Kazanjian, with his expected panache, works it into your spine. Act 2 opens with a resonant, darkly comic sight gag: Ewald, having missed Corzatte's demise after nervously departing to buy groceries, sits mournfully on the bench with videos and bags of fruit juice at her feet. Hyland, who is otherwise a tad out of place stylistically, has his finest anxious minutes rather movingly trying to convince Ewald that Corzatte's death was a shining, honey-colored ascent into a bright light. And Ewald comes as close to your tear ducts as Brown could've hoped when, in a moment of nearly unhinged vulnerability, she asks Hyland to help her get the word "goodbye" out of her mouth.

But it's all just so earnestly treacly and creakily familiar that even New City's efforts can't make Brown's sober empathy anything more than what it is—which is, unfortunately, rather boring. Some may find it Pinteresque or Beckettian or Albee-ish boredom—and, sure, Brown is reaching for some of the young Albee's measured, humane, elegant absurdity—but secondhand boredom can't keep The Toaster from shorting out very early on.

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