Life is so complicated, most of us would love to have a sagacious guide who could tell us what it's all about, where we should concentrate our efforts, and how to live better. Unfortunately, most of the people with that range of wisdom are usually boxed and planted, which puts a crimp in the communication process. So the next best thing is asking the pre-dead -- the terminally ill -- for advice, figuring their minds have been imbued with special knowledge as their bodies slide toward extinction.
This is the idea behind the stage version of Tuesdays With Morrie, now at the Cleveland Play House. And although it's a real story about facing life's end bravely and compassionately, it feels more like an after-school special for adults, presenting a handful of self-help aphorisms wrapped in a few brittle dialogues between a wise old man and his younger apprentice. Since its release in 1998, the Mitch Albom memoir of the same name has become the marketing equivalent of a Tickle Me Elmo doll -- a comforting, enormously popular, warm and fuzzy recollection of Morrie Schwartz's doomed battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. Over time, it's become a lucrative franchise, what with four years on the best-seller lists and a made-for-TV movie starring Jack Lemmon.
The Play House production features a couple of excellent performances that can't quite overcome a script in which too many of the characters' imperfections have been buffed out and in which the characters are never permitted to respond to each other in any way except as teacher and student. Co-written by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, this Tuesdays shares most of the highs (Morrie's rapid-fire wit) and lows (a series of bubble-gum insights) that appear throughout the book. But what's only fitfully captured is Morrie's persona -- the poignant, brave, always amusing, and somewhat fearful ex-university professor who originally appeared on the ABC show Nightline and riveted the attention of many, including his former student Albom.
Mitch, who used to call Morrie "Coach" when Albom was in Schwartz's sociology class at Brandeis University, reconnects with his dying prof after seeing him on TV. Soon, the young journalist is visiting the old fellow every Tuesday, bringing food and listening as Morrie reflects on the Important Things in life. Unfortunately, the nuggets of wisdom delivered from Morrie's lips are minimally edifying ("Try to be as human as you can be") or just cloying ("Without love, we're just birds with broken wings"). These sappy reflections are in stark contrast to Morrie's offhand patter, which is bracingly witty. When Mitch mentions that he dated his fiancée for seven years before proposing, Morrie dryly ripostes, "Mr. Impulsive!" And on the subject of religion, Morrie muses, "I used to be an agnostic, but now I'm not so sure."
Now, it's hard to quibble with a dying man's last thoughts, and if he wants to advise that we "Forgive everyone everything, and forgive ourselves," we probably should accept that guidance in the spirit it was given. But this isn't a hospice, this is theater, and banal, force-fed epigrams seem more appropriate for a needlepoint pillow or a Mylar balloon than an involving theatrical presentation. Moreover, this brief, 85-minute show never allows us to see beyond the surface of Morrie's fast-disappearing existence. Though Lou Gehrig's disease is a vicious affliction that slowly suffocates its victim over many weeks, the onstage Morrie is always relatively chipper and, except for a couple of coughing fits, never really demonstrates the toll being taken on his body -- not to mention his soul. By denying the ugly reality of his death, the play leaves his life to some degree shortchanged.
Another script problem is structural. Since the two-person play is narrated by Albom himself, it is never possible to get an objective view of who this ex-jazz-pianist-turned-megasuccessful-sports-reporter really is. Mitch often describes himself with candid self-deprecation, but that does not a character make. In his interactions with Morrie, he is understandably quite deferential, but that means we never really see Mitch in anything other than an artificial setting -- which makes it virtually impossible to observe how he changes in response to Morrie's teachings. Of course, Albom tells us that he's become a different and better man, but it's a claim without evidence.
Given these shortcomings, the Play House team still provides a number of lovely moments. As Morrie, Bernie Passeltiner twinkles without being saccharine and manages to cadge a few laughs with sly facial expressions. Charles Kartali accurately captures Albom's matter-of-fact delivery and does his best to keep the focus on his elder and mentor. Director Seth Gordon squeezes every drop of humor out of this well-intentioned material, but the final and challenging message -- that a rich life should be lived in the presence of death -- ultimately manages to slip out of reach. Just like life itself.
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