In the olden days, people had to wait weeks or months to get a letter from a loved one on the other side of the country. It's so much easier to maintain relationships now that there's texting – isn't it? This is the question posed by playwright (and CMU grad) Matt Schatz in The Burdens, a play at City Theatre about two siblings living opposite lives on opposite sides of the country with a shared goal of killing their grandpa. The show is directed by City Theatre’s artistic director Marc Masterson and runs through May 12.
Jane is juggling a lot, between her three kids with a fourth on the way, her husband, her job as a lawyer, and her affair; all unfolding in New Jersey. On top of it, she's worried about her mother, who has no money because she pours it all into her 100-year-old father's nursing home. Jane helps out where she can, but she's tired of seeing her mother suffer and most of all is tired of her grandpa, whom they call Zad-zad. He is mean enough to call his daughter a cunt who should die. She vents her frustrations via text to her brother, Mordy, a bad musician/acceptable pharmacist trying to make it in Los Angeles. He feels bad he doesn't see his family much and can't contribute financially, so he does so in other ways. When Jane jokingly suggests killing Zad-zad by feeding him a large amount of kale (just go with it), Mordy offers to help. Shenanigans and several casual murder plots ensue.
Jane and Mordy text each other exclusively because they're millennials, but also because they're not super close and texting can create the illusion of closeness without the intimacy of phone calls or talking in person. Almost all the dialogue in the play happens over text, and to convey this, actors Catherine LeFrere and Ben Rosenblatt speak all their texts out loud, typos and all. It becomes a running gag every time autocorrect makes them say "ducking" or "mazel gov." It's a format that almost works, but can feel tired at times, especially with the continuous running gags. If they really wanted to treat texting as a casual part of millennial lives, there wouldn't be such a focus on the medium. Most texters don't even blink at autocorrect mishaps.
LeFrere is the standout as Jane, who goes through repeated emotional rollercoasters about her family, her marriage, her sexuality, and her pregnancy. She plays the crises with strong and sharp delivery, making Jane seem both scary and warm. Rosenblatt does a fine job too, although Mordy’s character is harder to warm up to, as the struggling artist, man-child character is a little worn out.
In addition to being a story about millennial siblings who text, The Burdens is also a very Jewish play about a very Jewish family. The siblings talk, joke, argue, and make-up with the passion and quick-wit instantly recognizable to those raised in a Jewish home. In an interview in the play's program, Schatz notes that by portraying a Jewish family similar to his own, he also wanted to explore "the idea that not all Jews are rich or good with money." In any work where modern Jews are depicted, they are rarely shown to be poor or even just struggling financially, but The Burdens gives a different angle: Mordy can't even afford a blender, their mother lives in a sketchy apartment that "smells scary," and the eventual inheritance from their grandpa is a stack of old notebooks.
The play is a comedy, so, spoiler alert: the grandpa-murder plots don't actually come to fruition. Instead, the family learns that people, even family, often suck, but we love them anyway. Life is long, people say and do things they regret (or don’t), but they’re still family.