If you’ve never felt awkward at a funeral, I can only assume you’ve never been to one. Death isn’t just tragic: it's perplexing. Where do people go when they die? In the ground, into an urn, or to a heavenly abode?
A funny tour of grief
These are the questions that Mary Carpenter wrestles with in her one-woman comedy, The New & Improved Stages of Grief, which seeks to replace the “five stages of grief,” codified by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her seminal 1969 book On Death and Dying. Wearing a tour guide's jacket, Carpenter starts off by replacing stage one, “Denial,” with “WTF?” That sets the tone for an interactive comedy in which Carpenter not only engages the audience in a dialogue but also pulls four audience members onstage to assist in the process. The results are hilarious.
For an exploration of funeral etiquette, Carpenter puts on an apron, a Midwestern accent, and a perky attitude to become Dot, the Ann Landers of death. Dot instructs the audience in what to wear, say, and do in the home of the bereaved. Guys: No ties with happy faces. Gals: No slutty stilettos.
However, the biggest laughs come from Carpenter’s advice to the bereaved concerning family and friends who want to lend a helping hand during a time of loss. “When they ask, 'Is there anything I can do?' tell them to wash the car and slap a coat of paint on the den.”
Asking questions, still waiting for answers
Now about those tuna noodle casseroles that mysteriously accumulate in the refrigerators of the bereaved: Carpenter explains their true purpose. “They are not to comfort you. They are to make people feel warm and good about themselves.” Megan Bellwoar-Hollinger's direction sustains momentum as Carpenter rotates characters by moving to different parts of the set. However, the transition from comic satire to an anguished confrontation with God could be smoother.
Death makes people uncomfortable, and there are moments in the show when Carpenter puts her own discomfort on display, slipping from humor into a diatribe on God’s cruelty. Addressing the One on High, she demands to know why her brother and two other friends died so young. God has no response. Neither does the audience.
The problem is, although Carpenter briefly mentions the early demise of these three men at the top of the show, she never fleshes them out. We don’t know how old they were when they died, how they died, or, more importantly, what these people meant to her. This was the moment the play disconnected from its audience, and the one during which my companion fell asleep.
The subject matter might also explain why, on opening night, there were more empty seats than occupied ones. However, I highly recommend the show to anyone perplexed and anguished over the death of a loved one. Laughter really is the best medicine, and Carpenter dispenses it with excellent comic timing, empathy, and grace.