It makes sense that writer-director Brian Alan Lane's two-act existential drama would deal extensively with death, given that his program notes mention a car accident that killed his mother, brother, and best friend—and almost himself. The philosophical debate that dominates the second act might intrigue some audiences, but the first act drags heavily due to Lane's deliberate pacing, lengthy scene changes, and a few stilted performances. Time fluctuations and lack of character development—coupled with a lack of humor and pithy dialogue—means a ball of confusion that would take several viewings to unravel, without much revelatory payoff.
Obscurity doesn't seem to be on the menu in the first few interesting minutes. Oliver (LeVar Burton) is a doctor who tells Stan (James Hiroyuki Liao), a patient dying of mad cow disease, that for an exorbitant fee he will provide an appropriate death instead of allowing Stan to wither away. Oliver's new job choice, prompted by the suicide of his patient Emma (Rachel Kanouse), will help pay for the long-term care of his daughter, Penelope (Alejandra Jordan), who is in a coma. Oliver is estranged from his wife, Florence (Burnadean Jones), but he finds comfort and assistance from one of her long-lost relatives, Sadie (Angelle Brooke). The remaining character is Stan's caring wife, Ingrid (Cynthia Watros). The rather simplistic plot is merely a framework for Lane's existential discussion about the significance of death in the context of one's life.
Burton, dressed in black and rarely veering from a stoic persona, is the central focus for nearly every scene, which sets most of the production at a snail's pace. There's a bit of variation with Liao, who as the dying Stan moves frenetically and speaks mostly in a hip-hop style. But his street-poetry language feels out of place. Watros is sympathetic as the grieving wife, but she is afforded little stage time.
Adam Rowe's set, awash in white walls and floors, serves several locales comfortably, but Lane uses several long blackouts in the first act to move furniture and props. And extra running time is the last thing The Caterer needs. There may be interesting theories in the text, but slowing the action and overcomplicating the material means too much of the message gets lost.
Presented by and at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. April 10–May 10. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 8 p.m. www.thecatererplay.com.