“The Burdens” is a dark comedy starring William Jackson Harper and Ali Ahn as a brother and a sister who plot to kill their grandfather. But it’s also a play on words, and that makes it funnier…and deeper.
In Matt Schatz’s play, which is available on demand through November 25 on Play-PerView, Jane and Mordy communicate entirely by texting, or through DMs, although the two actors recite the dialogue aloud as they would in a normal play.
Their means of communication is central to the plot. They are complaining about how their 100 year old grandfather Zad Zad, living in a nursing home, mistreats their mother, taking her for granted.
“I wonder sometimes if he even appreciates it. All Mommy does for him. All we do for him,” Jane says (texts.)
“I hope he dies,” Mordy replies.
“Me too,” Jane says. “I hope he dies too.”
Mordy is mortified: “Not ‘dies.’ DOES. I hope he DOES. Appreciate it. I hope he appreciates what you guys do for him.”
“Dies” was a typo. But the die is cast. A series of hilarious twists and mishaps ensue.
“The Burdens” is more than a comic romp. It’s a comment on how modern life is rife with misunderstanding based on miscommunication. These days, we all use words poorly.
This serious point is ingeniously threaded throughout the piece, though never taking away from the humor (usually underscoring it.) Mordy is an aspiring songwriter in Southern California, who struggles to come up with words for his songs (the few songs he sings made me laugh, though the character means for them to be sincere.) He is single, underemployed, aimless.
Jane is a lawyer (another profession based on the use of words), living in Southern New Jersey, which is where they grew up, a married mother of three, with a fourth on the way. The two siblings frequently “talk” past one another, in amusing ways. Even the title points to a miscommunication. Their last name is Berman, but when their family took them to a pizza joint – called Pizza King, according to Jane, and King of Pizza, according to Mordy – the owner misheard their surname as Burden. So they were the Burdens every Friday night at Pizza King or King of Pizza. “And Daddy never corrected him…Daddy was like ‘come on Burden family, get in the car.”
Everything about the Play-PerView production enhances the script. Both William Jackson Harper and Ali Ahn are a delight as mismatched, squabbling Jewish siblings. That the actors are actually African-American and Asian-American, respectively, somehow makes the Jewish-inflected jokes funnier, and is eventually explained in the script in a way that doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief. The two actors offer comic timing and a gallery of entertaining facial expressions; they even personally figure in a surprise ending that I will not spoil.
Their being stuck in their separate boxes drives home the themes and the humor. Because of this, “The Burdens” may be the only known example of a pre-pandemic script that actually works better as a Zoom play.
Through November 25
Written by Matt Schatz
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Cast: Ali Ahn, William Jackson Harper
Running time: around 80 minutes