Long ago I swore to never use that awful "you'll laugh, you'll cry" formulation, unless I was being ironic, but friends, I have seen the light. Paul Osborne's On Borrowed Time at Center Rep got me right between the eyes. It's sweet, human, funny, and sad.
I laughed, I cried, I got a nosebleed, and even forgave artistic director Lee Sankowich for saying in the program notes that this was a play from a simpler time, another construction that makes me nuts, because for once it wasn't shorthand for "saccharine and unrealistic." On Borrowed Time manages to raise some serious issues without being heavy-handed, and the surprise ending takes a risk that keeps the whole thing, otherworldly as it is, real and grounded.
Young Pud lives happily with his grandparents, Nellie (Pat Parker) and Julian (Ed Sarafian). His Gramps is teaching him how to swear and catch toads, and he spends minimal time with his mother's prim, uptight sister Demetria. That is, until Death shows up to take Granny and Gramps. Nellie goes quietly, but Gramps is having none of it, and manages to trap Death (known as Mr. Brink) in a tree, hoping to borrow some more time and raise his grandson properly. But there are a few inherent problems in keeping Death from doing his job, and Gramps finds himself fighting not only Death, but Demetria, his doctor, his lawyer, the sheriff, and the head of the local insane asylum. He may outsmart them all, but at what cost?
Ed Sarafian, who recently played ornery aged vaudevillian Archie Rice in The Entertainer at Aurora, here plays ornery Gramps, and he's nothing short of wonderful. Both as loving and as wily as they come, he refers to Demetria as a "pissmire" and a "bird-stuffer" as easily as he tries to explain death to Pud. While most of the actors are solid, this is Sarafian's show, and his is a truthful and strong performance. He's counterbalanced by sixth-grader Joey Hauswirth as Pud, who seems to be all arms and legs as he clambers over his beloved grandfather. Sankowich's blocking emphasizes the difference in their ages without being obtrusive; a moment with a newspaper and Pud sitting almost on his grandfather's head rang especially true.
Joe Bellan, who plays Mr. Brink, isn't like any Death you've seen before -- compassionate, but not too much so, sly and cunning but outsmartable. He's Death as a Catskills entertainer. Up to the end he keeps the audience guessing whether it's a good thing to follow him or not. Since he spends most of the play stuck in a tree and visible only to a few characters and the audience, Mr. Brink has to rely on his voice to convey his disapproval of the goings-on. Bellan is up to the task, making a simple line like "I'll think about it" drip with menace.
Like We Won't Pay and Winter's Tale, On Borrowed Time manages a balance between humor and pathos; while the first ends in revolution and the second reconciliation, Time ends sadly, but with hope. It's a striking performance, especially from Sarafian, one that can disarm even the most jaded viewer.
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