It is hard to imagine a show more desperately in need of the Punchline punch line. The subject of the British play Clouding of Sorrow, which received its American premiere at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre on Sunday night, is a 51-year-old woman who has killed herself, and it is hard to imagine that a production even more desperate for the punchline wouldn’t be cast with a character of her age and size.
The cast includes Jane Booth (The Duchess of Malfi at the Geffen in 2011), Stephanie J. Block (Carrie at the Old Globe in 2010) and Cathleen McGuire (Mary Poppins in The Huntington Theatre’s 2011 production). The scene they are performing is set over the course of two hours and includes other women, all of whom have tragically lost their lives to the unthinkable — to killings that they believed, either through misguided guilt or deceptively good intentions, had been carried out at a distance or by a stranger.
It is, as its title so aptly describes, a show about life. But it is a kind of scenario — one that essentially takes a leaf out of Friends From College’s hopeless romances — that is so reserved and self-effacing that it never quite registers that the trauma it addresses had to be conceived with a certain fondness for people and other things they love. Although the narrative about suicide posits sorrow, guilt and so forth as its major focuses, what comes off as hollow, self-defeating ground.
They are women who were not fully themselves after the death of a person close to them, and the remainder of the show they’re walking around or singing song in groups is an attempt to come to terms with that. At times, it works — the quintet of singers is talented, giving each song an immediate narrative, even if they remain in a room for long periods. And the play constantly pushes people’s reactions away from the question of what exactly the connection was that ended life and into the realm of public performances — or, alternately, into the spiritual void of religious devotion.
But it’s hard to imagine a show that so sincerely and well wishes to give its subjects a voice — to set them on stage and let them engage with the audience as they recount their experience in telling — making an impression without a closer look at its sharp edges. The resulting talk-sung, that only one actress at a time comes to the microphone, is quieter and darker than the reality.
“Do you know,” the protagonist asks at one point, “why you’re laughing?” The implication, unfortunately, is that the horrors of suicide and loss were all so much fun.