‘Nellie was the first of the Fail sisters to die.” So begins Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins’ rich, mischievously sorrowful play Failure: A Love Story.
The play, Dawkins says, was inspired after a walk in a cemetery where he spotted a gravestone marked “FAIL,” the final resting place of the Fail family, who, by the names on the markers, appeared to have had many deaths in the early 1900s. From this macabre jumping-off place, Dawkins has crafted a play as odd and unconventional as it is loving, magical and wise, full of the knowledge that in the end life is futile—but not without its perks.
In the slightly Tim Burton–ish production at Marin Theatre Company, director Jasson Minadakis—and an excellent
cast of five actor-singer-instrumentalists—has created a show in which the tone of the thing is as important as its meandering, point-packed plot. There is a deep and very real sadness just beneath the surface of every whimsical twist and lighthearted tragedy, but this fractured fairy tale—with snappy songs and talking snakes to sweeten the existential angst—makes a person wonder if there’s any point to it all—until, suddenly, there is.
The Fail sisters, Nellie (Kathryn Zdan), Jenny June (Liz Sklar) and Gertie (Megan Smith), live in their family home and clock shop in Chicago, at the corner of Lumber and Love streets. The shop (an outstanding set by Nina Ball) is shared with adopted brother John (Patrick Kelly Jones), who was found floating in a basket in the polluted river, and now prefers animals (played by an array of marvelous puppets) to human beings. The siblings’ parents died tragically (and, of course, humorously) 13 years ago, but the Fails are nothing if not resilient, and their hopes and dreams—and all of the clocks in the family shop—tick on.
Then Mortimer Mortimer arrives.
A young dreamer described as “a man so famous he was named after himself,” Mortimer instantly falls in love with Nellie, forever changing the course of his life, which is about to encounter a veritable parade of death, loss and the occasional instance of puppet euthanasia.
Inventively staged and packed with language-loving dialogue (“In the story of his sleep, he was safe from the sadness of being awake”), Failure: A Love Story is a wholly original work that drips with ideas and dazzling word-craft, and is eventually quite profound. The play’s only fault is that it takes so long to take its own sadness seriously.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★