In the cabin of a well-known writer, family members gather to deal with all the stuff accumulated by the great man, as well as the ramifications of his apparent suicide. Set in Washington State’s scenic San Juan Islands, the first to arrive is daughter Judy (Eve Danzeisen), who, as the lights go up, discovers a salacious prop that clues in an audience that a bumpy ride will ensue. John Bunzel’s new play, Boxing Lessons, now in its world premiere run at The New American Theatre, is a wickedly funny black comedy peopled by the quirkiest of characters and performed by a sensational cast.
Judy is the voice of reason in the play. Determined to find out whether the death of dad, who was discovered lifeless and bare-ass naked in the waters of Puget Sound, is an accident or suicide, the family gathers under the pretext of boxing up the detritus of a life. After all there is money at stake, and Judy sure could use some of that. Next to arrive, her college professor brother, Ned (Luke McClure), is a brittle, jittery, unhappy guy who feels put upon by the event. The tall, imposing, by-the-book Sheriff Bob (Eric Curtis Johnson), heads up the investigation. A guy quite familiar with the oddities of the family, he insists on a by-the-book procedural protocol.
The emotional content of the situation ratchets up with the arrival of the patriarch’s ex-wife, Meg (Susan Wilder), a smooth, smiling, wickedly commanding, diva-type on the hunt for her share. And then there is Steve (Stephen Tyler Howell), the adopted brother and the youngest of the family, who lives under the care of his mother because he is a special needs guy who refers to himself in the third person. At first he seems irredeemably child-like, but eventually turns out to be his own brand of extraordinary. Last to arrive, and despised by all, Billy (Bruce Nozick), the great man’s agent and more, joins in on the search for a will.
Boxing Lessons is a ninety-minute wonder, skillfully directed by the company’s artistic director, Jack Stehlin, abetted by a sterling creative staff that shoehorns a production rife with detail into the minimal space of a forty-plus-seat theatre. If anyone knows how to do that, it is the extraordinary scenic designer, John Iacovelli, who in concert with lighting designer Josephine Wang, and propmaster David Saewert, create a set that fills the eye with detail, while making it functional for the players. Kudos also go to sound designer Christopher Moscatiello who creates a soundscape that adds enormously to the joy of the show. And designer Florence Kemper Bunzel’s costumes reinforce character, place and action.
Boxing Lessons, a surefire, don’t-miss-it show produced by Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin and presented by The New American Theatre, continues through June 2 at the company’s newest home at 1312 N. Wilton Place, in Hollywood.