: Theatre 40 launches a brave Death with Benefits

Damante, Eisenerg, David. Photo by Eric Kettle.

If you loved Arsenic and Old Lace, you’ll recognize the similarities to John Strysik’s new play, Death, With Benefits. One can see the bare bones of an hilarious romp in Strysik’s comedy, but, sadly, Jeff G. Rack’s direction doesn’t quite manage to lift the material into the stratosphere it is meant for.

Susan Damante plays Mary Helmsworth, a jilted housewife struggling to stay above economic water by renting out rooms in her luxurious home, while Cheryl David wrestles with an indeterminate Eastern European accent as her renter, Duscha Gehenlegen.  The two women embark upon a scheme to lure homeless men on death’s door into their home, induce them to fill out expensive life insurance, and then, well, wait for them to die.

The two women’s efforts to facilitate the first homeless boarder’s death when faced with his long-term longevity should reach hilarious heights, but sadly the comedy falls flat. Director Jeff Rack, primarily a set designer, has directed the two women as if in a filmed sit-com and tends to miss the dimensionality and comic timing that the play demands.  Damante, an engaging performer, is less a comic than dramatic actor, while David’s accent is overwhelming.  Larry Eisenberg as Joe, the homeless man, fares better, and Phil Sokoloff’s turn as Bill, the last homeless man, is suitably eery.  But Kevin Dulude’s rendition of age leaves me scratching my head.  Because he is so obviously young, one wonders if he will yell out “April Fool!” at some point. 

As always, though, Theatre 40s phalanx of tech designers come through for a smoothly realized production, and Marc Antonio Pritchett’s “fight” choreography helps to save the day.

Death With Benefits continues through February 20th , playing Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at  2 pm on the Campus of Beverly Hills High School,  241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Proof of vaccination is required. For reservations, call (310) 364-0535 or online at www.theatre40.org. All tickets $35.00, with parking accessed at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Dr. just off little Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills.