Jarrott Production’s “The Pact” is a new dark comedy from Austin playwright Max Langert, directed by Will Gibson Douglas at the Vortex through Oct. 15. The play opens as a drama following a family of five, but the characters quickly turn the story toward the ridiculous.
As the play opens, Glenn (David R. Jarrott) and Carol (Lisa Scheps) worry about a big decision they need to talk to their daughters about over dinner. The first to arrive is their oldest, Susan (Jennifer Jennings). Although she is in her 40s, high-strung Susan insists that her childhood bedroom remain untouched. She claims that her husband is cheating and her daughter has joined a cult, but over the course of the play, it becomes apparent that she jumps to most of her conclusions and has a proclivity for blocking contacts in her phone, leaving her without key information.
Next to arrive is the fashionable but presently unemployed sister Nancy, performed by Natalie D. Garcia as boy-crazy and ditzy with an affected glamor, conveyed by a transatlantic-esque speech pattern. She and Susan are equally shallow, as much concerned with pizza as issues of life and death.
Keira (Hannah Schochler), Susan’s 23 year-old daughter, seems to be the relatively sane result of Susan’s parenting, and the only one emotionally ready to respond to family crises, but it turns out that her involvement with a fringe religious and environmental group is worse than her mother feared. The group believes in “population reduction” to help save the planet, and Keira desperately wants to impress them.
Add to this dynamic that Glenn, tired of life and motivated by vaguely environmentalist reasons, is eager to shuffle off this mortal coil as soon as possible. He has convinced his hesitant wife Carol to agree to the titular suicide pact and end their lives early to save the planet. Glenn sees death as their next adventure together, as partners, but Carol repeats multiple times that she assumed he’d drop the idea, calling into question how willingly she is consenting to this plan.
The nature of the pact is wholly obvious to the audience long before it is to the characters. Glenn and Carol introduce their plan to their daughters as downsizing, yet the resultant miscommunication and dramatic irony don’t quite make up for the missed opportunity to see the characters’ big reactions. The humor in “The Pact” is born of awkwardness and misunderstanding, but by the time the daughters understand, they’ve accepted the decision.
The production has moments of humor that succeed, like when Glenn reveals a much-hyped flesh-colored swimsuit. But the show also suffers from momentum-killing pacing issues. For example, there are moments in which the lights dim to blue or purple, music plays, and actors rearrange the furniture. And details that become jokes are tediously repeated by the characters before the punchlines arrive. In one scene actors talk about nothing while eating garlic knots and seem to be waiting for the next event that will move the story forward.
While the characters grapple with existential themes, they are for the most part comically inept at navigating them, and too shallow to stay on one topic for long. The deepest engagement with love and death occurs in a drug-induced delusion after Glenn and Carol take some of Susan’s pills that they mistake for Ambien. Finding each other in this unfamiliar experience, they reaffirm what they mean to each other.
Though its script bears flaws and its direction is muddied, “The Pact” tackles big concepts with kooky, life-affirming characters.
“The Pact” continues through Oct. 15 at the Vortex, vortexrep.org/35_the-pact