DEATH, WITH BENEFITS again proves the old adage: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Based on the real-life story of the infamous “Killer Grannies of Santa Monica” – Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt – the dark comedy introduces the audience to two elderly widows who find themselves in an unpleasant and distressing financial situation after their husbands’ demise – and their careful plans to remedy the awkward situation. Directed by award-winning set designer Jeff Rack, the play doesn’t shy away from the key theme of death.
After meeting at a local exercise class, Mary Helmsworth (Susan Damante) and Duscha Gehenlegen (Cheryl David) discover that they are both in a similar pickle – mature ladies who are barely making it since their respective spouses kicked the bucket. Then an idea comes to them, a scheme both creative and ruthless. Mary just happens to own an apartment building – which she can barely keep up. Why not hire Duscha as a handyman-of-sorts in exchange for a place to stay? A good idea, but unfortunately not a sufficiently remunerative one. Then they stumble upon their really clever plan. Why not take in elderly men, offer them room and board, and have them sign a lavish insurance policy with them as beneficiaries? Upon their boarder’s death, they will be well-heeled for life. But like all good ideas, the flaws readily become apparent. Their boarders aren’t going to die fast enough – on their own.
Thus enter the widows’ unsuspecting boarders, Ned (Kevin Delude), Joe (Larry Eisenberg), and Bill (Phil Sokoloff). Their first victim Ned obligingly dies – but it takes any awfully long time for Mary’s ex son-in-law to do the deed. The ladies manage to speed up Joe’s passing – but the financial rewards just aren’t coming in fast enough. Then Bill enters the scene – the canny one who got away.
DEATH, WITH BENEFITS is a clever idea for a black comedy – and remains a bright idea ready to hit the stage. Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks during the current production. The play teetered between a farce and a dramedy and never quite decided which direction to go. The pacing was slow, often with long pauses which weren’t filled in by audience laugher. The relationship between the two main characters doesn’t quite gel, and Duscha’s over-the top performance is marred by a thick Eastern European accent which sometimes left her one-liners in auditory limbo. While the actors involved gave it their best – with kudos to Eisenberg’s ability to pull off some well-deserved laughs – there was an up-and-down quality to the performances which often left them unmatched at critical junctures. Ned and Bill (Dulude and Sokoloff) were believable anchors who tried their best to hold the rocking boat steady. Finally, the ending didn’t quite fit in with the overall show.
As always, the production team did a yeoman’s job, including Jeff Rack’s set design, Derrick McDaniel’s lighting, Nick Foran’s sound, Michele Young’s costumes, and Judi Lewin’s wigs/hair/make-up. Playwright John Strysik comes from a background as director and writer on horror/fantasy television series, including “Tales from the Darkside,” “Monsters,” and “Land of the Lost,” He has also written several well-received novels and screenplays. Like its genetic predecessor “Arsenic and Old Lace, which opened on Broadway in 1941, dark comedies dealing with mayhem and death are delicate creatures which must be treated with utmost care – especially if laughs are a prime goal. Perhaps DEATH, WITH BENEFITS wasn’t quite ready for its world premiere at Theatre 40. Audiences will make the final determination.
DEATH, WITH BENEFITS runs through February 20, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Theatre 40 performs in the Reuben Cordova Theatre located at 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 310-364-0535 or go online.