Domestic comedy. It’s a huge and burgeoning genre, because everybody’s got a family — and if they don’t, well, that’s a fairly popular subgenre. There are two tricks to writing this kind of play: (a) Ground the universal in specifics, particularly ones we care about, and (b) Handle them in a new and interesting way.
In Death and Cockroaches: A Family Play, Eric Loo does pretty well at both. His family is a very specific one, and his characters — two brothers, their mother and father — are distinctly etched. Eric, our narrator, is self-deprecating and quirky enough that we can’t help but feel attached, and that makes everyone else matter right away.
Besides family, Loo adds two more universals that arouse our fear and loathing (with no complicating feelings of love) — death, and cockroaches. Eric’s father is dying, and his mother’s slovenly house is overrun by roaches.
Loo also handles his tale cleverly. One of the cockroaches becomes a lead character (hello, Mr. Kafka), depicted in a surprising manner. Eric’s addiction to men’s room glory holes inspires a vivid comic scene. And director Jennifer Chang and the Chalk Rep creative team extend the playfulness: Set design and puppetry (Sarah Krainin), projections (Anna Robinson), and even scene changes all provide quietly ongoing sources of amusement.
As always, Chalk Rep’s performers rise to the task admirably. Sunil Malhotra arches, twists, and dances through Pat’s journey, constantly re-engaging us. Justin Huen makes “successful” brother Eric (wife, children, job, house) more than stolid, slipping us into his emotional space with no overplayed — or overwritten — “reveal” moment. Veteran artists Kelvin Han Yee and Eileen Galindo shine unobtrusively: Yee tosses hints of complexity that make us curious about Dad’s story (which Loo wisely never provides), and Galindo draws us past our irritation to feel the fierceness behind her facade of incompetence. Walter Belenky and Claudia de Vasco likewise make us sense stories behind what we’re told.
The story resolves, as stories do (most of them, at least). And we’re left to ponder our own versions of the universal family story; also perhaps to question our frightened antipathy to the mortality and roaches that are always with us.
I also found myself wondering how much this play’s quiet success owes to Loo’s writing, and how much to the skill and brio with which the company stages it. No matter — it works. I’m curious to see Loo’s next offering, and eager to experience whatever Chalk Rep does next.
Death and Cockroaches: A Family Play, by Eric Reyes Loo, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8:00