THAT Action/Adventure Theatre's new play, How to Stop Dying, opens with fog machines flanking a drag-queen Whitney Houston doing her very best "I Will Always Love You" is a good indicator of what's to come. There's a showy pathos to that particular song choice, ever since Houston made her final public appearance on February 9, 2012, and was found unconscious in the bathtub at the Beverly Hilton two days later. Three years since her death, "I Will Always Love You" is simultaneously a declaration of undying love (listen to her words) and a reminder that we're all going to die (look at her real life). It's a contradiction in terms, a pop cultural harbinger of mortality, and—when the messenger's a drag queen—it also carries connotations of high camp.
All of these things can also be said of How to Stop Dying, a play that's at its best when it ramps up the existential dread and the camp, not the feels (we'll get to that later!). Written and directed by former Mercury employee (and forever Mercury friend!) Noah Dunham, the play centers on misanthropic Sarah (Nicole Accuardi), a producer on Ghost Finders America, a low-rent Ghost Hunters. With on-screen host Tom (James Luster) and camera-wielding Leann (Katie Behrens), Sarah heads out into the wilds of eastern Oregon, to investigate a house supposedly haunted (by Sarah's dead dad!) and belonging to a creepy funeral-biz couple, who it turns out are running something like a Doomsday cult.
If you've seen any horror movie of the creepy-cabin variety, you already know this plot, so it shouldn't be surprising that things are resolutely not what they seem. Even still, Dunham's goofy dialogue and unexpected departures from the genre's sketchy outline keep How to Stop Dying from falling into predictability. It also doesn't hurt that the cast is uniformly strong. As the Jim Jones of rural Oregon, Matthew Dieckman's unhinged facial expressions are seared—possibly forever—into my memory. Jade Hobbs plays his wife, Betty, as a woman prone to crooning murder ballads, like Tom Waits possessing the body of a candle-collecting new-age lady. And Luster's Tom puts on such an affected, bro-y bearing that he's less of a character than a sentient Ed Hardy sweatshirt, in the worst/best way possible.
There's also sad, PhD-defrocked scientist Mitchell (Evan Ward); drag performer Kieren's (Gerrin Delane Mitchell) impressions of dead celebrities (Julia Child, Kurt Cobain, and Princess Diana among them); a crystal-waving sequence; a car crash scene accomplished convincingly without props; and a number of devolutions into song-and-dance, one of them reminiscent of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears"...).
What these moments share with Edward Gorey's ill-fated children is their juxtaposition of cartoonish humor with certifiable horror. And that's what's really masterful about How to Stop Dying—the way it pairs broad comedy with an undercurrent of very real existential dread. That tension forms the play's real emotional core. So it's odd, then, when the script occasionally dips out of this mode into something more conventionally sentimental, tacking some "love will save us" feels onto a play that is more about Whitney Houston's doom—and everyone else's—than the eternal love she once promised in her songs.
That said, it's really fucking funny, something I can't say of most plays about, you know, the void.