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Three Viewings elicits little mourning at Muehlebach Funeral Home

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I wasn't sure I was in the right place. Black-clad attendants stood at the Muehlebach Funeral Home's entryway, through which I saw a roomful of people. Was this a service after all, rather than the scheduled performance of Three Viewings?

The man and the woman handing out programs and taking tickets really were a former funeral director and his wife (according to a woman I sat next to), which lent an authentic uneasiness to the moments before the performance. No acting needed yet to produce a somewhat surreal mood. That's part of what staging a play in such an atypical venue can do.

Does Three Viewings benefit from this literal setting? The play, directed here by Melinda McCrary for Kansas City Actors Theatre, is composed of three scenes, or vignettes, each lasting about a half-hour and starring one actor. The monologues are absorbing and cleverly constructed, yet I was more disconcerted than transported by my surroundings.

In the first scene, "Tell-Tale," featuring David Fritts as black-suited funeral director Emil, the place seemed fairly natural, as the character maneuvered lighting effects and flower arrangements as his job would require in the course of a day at a funeral parlor. His story is more about love than loss, delineating the thin separation between them. Fritts' appearance was distractingly Nixonian, though — which added to Emil's creep factor while giving power to his longing for something more.

There's much humor in this play about death because it's really about life, about the survivors of the deceased. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher is also a screenwriter, and this is reflected in crisp composition and moments that feel neatly packaged — often too much so. But there's earned poignancy in the segment "The Thief of Tears," starring the charismatic Katie Gilchrist as Mac. Her complicated character, not always sympathetic, provides the one surprise of the evening, touching us with Mac's vivacity, her grief — and her guilt.

Jeanne Averill is engaging in an adept characterization of Virginia Carpolotti, a woman burying her longtime husband while discovering some of his secrets. In "Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti," she perches on a couch at the front of the room, her portrayal no less riveting for its lack of movement.

Each of these actors gives a skilled performance, holding us in a singular domination of the room. But in the end, they are working in just a room. There's no forgetting that actors and audience alike are in a funeral home, and the setting and the script feel equally contrived.

At the conclusion of the final scene, after the actors took their bows, that woman sitting next to me said to her friends: "That was cute." After a pause, she turned again to her friends. "And touching," she said. Yes, in that order.

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