Walter Cronkite Is Dead Written and directed by Joe Calarco at Signature Theatre to Dec. 26 The airport comedy, less Kafkaesque than Sartrian

Red Grate/Blue Grate: Walter Cronkite Is Dead can feel exhausting.

There are just the two storm-stranded ladies sitting there in the National Airport boarding zone—Margaret, the stern and businesslike creature played by Nancy Robinette, and Patty, the nervously blabby Tennessean inhabited with brittle cheer by Sherri L. Edelen. But eventually there are multitudes contained in Joe Calarco’s new comedy: the families, absent or dead, of these differently unhappy women, along with everyone who’s ever assumed or expected anything about or from them. As the ladies explain themselves to one another—grudgingly, boozily, angrily, at last tenderly—the stage fills up with the ghosts of missed opportunities and miscalculated decisions, until the echoes of self-doubt ring as loud as the noises of the airport concourse. It’s a lot of existential weight for a 90-minute comedy to carry, and Calarco’s script—rangy, still somewhat undisciplined, occasionally surprising, and undeniably smart—can feel a little overfreighted. (I’m of a mind to rule, writing for the majority of the Court Dramaturgical, that in a compact one-act you can give a conservative character a son lost to tribalism or a daughter lost to tribadism, but not both.) And I’m not certain what the playwright wants the audience to take away aside from the obvious: a reminder that in an age of fierce red-state/blue-state divisions, the fact that we’re all people, fearful and fallible, can get lost in the gulf between. As a meditation on a world grown coarse and confrontational, Walter Cronkite Is Dead (note the it-was-better-then lament built into the title) feels like a not-quite-finished product—like a series of confident authorial acrobatics in the service of a notion, not a series of scenes deployed in the service of a completed thought. As a vehicle written expressly for two of the area’s most beloved performers, it’s something else entirely. Calarco has written long, grating arias for the ever-agreeable Edelen, who delivers them with the near-manic chirpiness of a woman who knows she’s not well-liked; he offers ample opportunities for slow burns and small takes and dry one-liners for Robinette, Washington theater’s acknowledged Queen of Subtext. And then he turns it all on its head, and lets Robinette talk up a river of oddball dreams while Edelen listens, goggle-eyed and incredulous. It’s exhausting merely to watch sometimes; it must be sheer murder to perform night after night. And if at the end, with the storms blown over and their flights cleared for takeoff, I was ready enough to part company with Margaret and Patty, it’s an honest expression of affection and respect for all concerned when I say I was also prepared to wish them both blue skies, happy travels, and ever-broader horizons. 

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