With the houselights still up, in a theatre with seats configured on a slant, a pleasant, smiling, thirtyish man enters in replete with a MacBook and ear buds, hops into an armchair and types. House lights fade, stage lights come up, and this voluble, energetic man addresses the audience. He says he is the playwright. I suspect he is playwright Eric Reyes Loo’s avatar, but I am not quite sure until I look at the dramatis personae. Aha! He is indeed a character named Eric (Sunil Malhotra) and we are launched into a dreamy story that does indeed include Death and Cockroaches as well as broadly played comedy, angry conflict, and affecting pathos.
Eric reveals with no small amount of gusto that he loves cock. He goes on to describe in enthusiastic detail all the ways he loves cock. Later in the play some theatre magic doubles down on the theme, the details of which I will not disclose here. Yes, he is gay, and more importantly, he is the eldest son of an irascible, angry old man (splendid Kelvin Han Yee) who has little regard and less affection for his homosexual son.
Dad hasn’t worked in ten years and is now laid up in a hospital with the end looming. Mom (Eileen Galindo) is the family breadwinner and has, astonishingly, some affection for the old grouch, and does whatever she can for him. A younger son, Pat (Justin Huen), who lives far away, is married and appears with an infant strapped in front. He shows some concern, but what can he do? A doctor in the hospital (Lorena Martinez in the performance I attended) strides around all charts and business with little time for any meaningful contact with the family. It is no surprise that Dad’s condition deteriorates and he is sent home to suffer to the end with only a hired caregiver (Ms. Martinez in a performance the polar opposite of her doctor) to give him the kind of very personal attention he requires.
So, what is it about the cockroaches? Here the playwright launches into some Kafkaesque magic realism. The cockroach appears to Eric in the guise of a buff, attractive, not gay man (Walter Belenky), who claims to have lived for some five billion years, more or less. He represents all cockroaches that have ever lived.
The production, under the excellent direction of Jennifer Chang, boasts a minimalist scene design by Sarah Krainin (lighting by Rebecca Bonebrake) consisting of the armchair, a couch, a hospital bed, and three floor-to-grid curtains hung by chains that can be pulled rapidly on and off like those one might see in a hospital, only bigger. Sound is by Colin Wambsgans, costumes by Halei Parker, and projections by Anna Robinson. Bryan Clements manages the stage.
Death and Cockroaches, produced for The Chalk Repertory Theatre by Ruth McKee and Peter Wylie, closes on December 1 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.