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Failure: A Love Story at Victory Gardens Theater | Theater review

Philip Dawkins’s new work deals with death in unrelentingly cheerful fashion.
Photograph: Michael Brosilow Failure: A Love Story at Victory Gardens Theater
By Zac Thompson |

Though the subject of Philip Dawkins’s new play is death, the tone is chirpy and cheerful. Set in 1920s Chicago, the story centers on eccentric sisters Gertrude, Jenny June and Nelly Fail, who in the course of one year all fall for the same man and all kick the bucket. The girls live with their doleful brother above the clock shop they inherited from their deceased parents. One fine day, in walks happy-go-lucky Mortimer Mortimer (Matt Fletcher), who woos the sisters in reverse birth order, losing them to blunt head trauma, drowning and consumption—in that order.

This series of unfortunate events may call to mind the delightfully macabre work of Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey, but unlike those guys, Dawkins falls prey to cutesiness and sentiment. He can’t decide whether to be flippant about mortality or to attempt profundity. When he pursues the latter course, things get mushy and banal. “Just because something ends,” a talking dog says (did I mention the brother’s pets can talk?), “that don’t mean it wasn’t a great success.”

Seth Bockley’s staging is even more unrelentingly playful than the script. He makes inventive use of books, hats, a rolling bureau and other old-timey props to suggest everything from Lake Michigan to a mouthy parakeet, yet the production feels almost frenzied in its nonstop hustle-bustle. Bockley has assembled a fine cast, led by the bubbly trio of Mildred Marie Langford, Emjoy Gavino and Baize Buzan as the sisters. But the uniformity of their aw-shucks, gee-willikers performances grows wearisome.

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