This all feels very familiar. There are echoes of No Exit here and a spattering of philosophical ideas I’ve heard rattling about in many other absurdist, existential plays. Max Ackerman’s DEATH: A Love Story, presented by Dandelion Theatre, feels part of this tradition. It uses the trapped in a nowhere place format to wax lyrical about two exes who finally have a proper conversation in the after life.
Jack (Sivert Das) and Moonie (Sophie Rivers) wake up in a sort of purgatory. They have no memory of dying, not yet, but the pink pixelated text assures them they’ve passed on. This disembodied being—a sort of astral computer—seems a cryptic yet ultimately benevolent presence. With a dash of humour, it provides terse, often baffling answers to their questions and has a penchant for emojis.
Within this very highly conceptual set-up, most of their exchange plays out like a chance meeting between exes that might occur at a mutual friend’s party. Ackerman’s script has them revisit moments from their relationship and it does a fine job of balancing the darkness and joy. As people, they are vividly fleshed out and Das and Rivers feel authentic—though Rivers is notably more nuanced.
In his Director’s Note, Ackerman confides to us that he wrote this at nineteen, when he was overly confident in his ability to examine the ubiquitous subject of love. And the work does betray that youth. It is eager, a little derivative, full of ideas about imperfection that are sincere and poetic, yet a bit clumsy in its execution.
Except for a handful of key moments when Max Chu’s lighting design gets purposeful with some intense colour and a score by Checkout Queens ramps up the sentiment, there isn’t much drama to Ackerman’s staging. So much of this plays out in a white wash that flattens the bare environment. After the highly stylized opening that introduces our duo in contrasting slabs of light, this utilitarian aesthetic feels very drab. And Ackerman seems to have let his actors awkwardly mumblecore their way through most of the dialogue in a way that doesn’t draw us in theatrically.
There are some stirring moments when all of the elements are in perfect alignment. The heartfelt flashbacks are particularly resonant. And the ending, which comes uncomfortably close to hokum, transcends the potential silliness and is genuinely touching. The final revelation of divine purpose has the schmaltzy charm of M. Night Shayamalan’s best work.