“Failure: A Love Story” at Marin Theatre

Singin’ and dancin’ and dyin’ at Marin Theatre1402668867MTC_Failure_Ensemble1_LoRes.jpg

Love and death, the two great themes of literature, and, boy, do they get a workout in Philip Dawkins’ Failure: a Love Story, now at Marin Theatre, where they’re decorated with song and dance.

Yes, a cheery musical where everybody dies.

Does it work? More on that later. The production, helmed by Marin’s artistic director, Jasson Minidakis, deserves praise, from Jacqueline Firkins’ bright, richly conceived costumes, to York Kennedy’s beguilingly shifting lighting, to Chris Houston’s sound design, to Nina Ball’s wonderfully versatile set: a jumble of clocks and musical instruments, with sections that slide back and forth like giant jigsaw puzzle pieces. It’s fun to watch, and so is Kathryn Zdan’s brisk choreography fitted to Chris Houston’s musical compositions and choices, which include “In the Good Old Summertime,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan.”

The capable cast – Brian Herndon, Patrick Kelly Jones, Liz Sklar, Megan Pearl Smith and Kathryn Zdan – is always “on,” gamely plugging away, as they perform the show and its music, punctuated by the chiming of clocks. The non-human members of the cast deserve note, too: a dog, pair of bright green parakeets and a giant boa constrictor named Moses who is more pussycat than snake.

But then there’s the play. Though 1929 was a bad year for the nation, the previous year was the really bad one for the Fail family (yes, their name is “Fail,” cutely echoing the play’s title): sisters Nelly, Jenny June and Gertrude Fail, and their adopted brother, John Fail, who was found in a basket near Lake Michigan (yes, found in a basket).  The three sisters die in 1928, we learn right away: Nelly by blunt object, Jenny June by disappearance and Gertrude by consumption.  The subsequent story backtracks, revealing how their parents died, how the three sisters were wooed by the same man, Mortimer Mortimer (yes, “Mortimer Mortimer,” with a double allusion to death) before they died, and then how their brother and Mortimer Mortimer died as well.

That’s a lotta dying, but the show domesticates it with a lotta smiles.  The women in particular flash so much toothy wattage they could light the Bay Bridge. The tone is  ain’t-we-got fun-ish, with plenty of pep and many kooky moments – Jenny June, for example, practicing swim strokes in the living room, where Mortimer Mortimer, who has been lassoed in as her coach, rolls her around on a cart.

Though there are pauses for bittersweet reflections, the whimsey is pretty non-stop, and whether you take to Failure: A Love Story depends on how you take to all that whimsey. It wore me out. The show has its moments, Brian Herndon’s Johnny Weissmuller song-and-dance strip tease for example, and the staging is inventive.  But there’s an awful lot of narrative – the cast spends much of its time telling the tale rather than showing it – and the result, for me, was a mixed bag, of pleasure in the production but dismay at the play itself.

Failure: A Love Story holds forth in Mill Valley until June 29th. Marin Theatre’s 2014-15 season opens in August with Will Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man.  For tickets/information call 415-388-5208 or visit 

– Robert Hall