Mustard Seed’s Death Tax Is an Unpleasant Look at Unpleasant People

Maxine (Kim Furlow) and Tina (Jeanitta Perkins) argue about Maxine's care.
Maxine (Kim Furlow) and Tina (Jeanitta Perkins) argue about Maxine's care. JILL RITTER PHOTOGRAPHY

Death Tax

Written by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Bess Moynihan. Presented by Mustard Seed Theatre through May 19 at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre (6800 Wydown Boulevard; Tickets are $15 to $35.

Maxine is dying. Laid out in a nursing home bed, she laments not just the unfairness of death but the injustice of dying rich. She's certain her estranged daughter is paying the nurse to kill her to circumvent the new estate tax law that goes into effect on the first of the year. If she can stay alive until then, Maxine is convinced she'll have spited her daughter one last time.

Lucas Hnath's Death Tax, currently being mounted by Mustard Seed Theatre, begins with this rather unpleasant set-up and remains steadfastly unpleasant in both characters and plot until the bitter end. It might be worth it if Hnath had anything original to say about greed, death or mother-child relationships, but that is not the case. Despite good work from the cast and crew, Death Tax offers no insight and little in the way of drama.

Kim Furlow's Maxine is believably enfeebled and cantankerous, furious that she can't take it with her or spend it all before her unnamed daughter inherits it. When she confronts Nurse Tina (Jeanitta Perkins) with her knowledge of the supposed murder plot, Tina denies it. But Tina has her own problems. She's an immigrant who wants full-time custody of her son, who remains in Haiti with her ex-husband. When Maxine proposes paying Tina more money to keep her alive than she believes her daughter is paying Tina to kill her, Tina is tempted — she could get her son back.

The only complication is Tina's supervisor Todd (Reginald Pierre), who will have to be an ally and partner if Tina's going to keep the exchange of funds hidden from the nursing home administration. Tina, formerly sweet-natured and patient, becomes manipulative and domineering as she struggles to keep it all together and keep Maxine alive so the money keeps coming.

Tina's transformation comes after a revelation about her past that implies she's not becoming bad so much as she is reverting to her true nature. Perkins plays bad very well, and Pierre is quite good as the weak-willed Todd, who suffers the brunt of her abuse. As Maxine's unnamed daughter, Kristen Strom portrays a similar transformation, going from desperate young mother to seemingly emotionally manipulative gold digger.

Despite the quality of the performances, it's difficult to care about any of the characters or their problems. Maxine may be old and deluded, but she's definitely nasty. Tina is revealed as a monster, Todd has his own flaws, and even the mysterious daughter seems to be angling for an advantage. The story takes place across five scenes, all set against the moveable white walls of a nursing home, which is not all that visually interesting.

There's a similar blandness to the characters. Everybody speaks in the same expansive paragraphs that state, restate and restate again a point, a story, an example. As they each become embittered and paranoid, they mirror each other in action as well as in dialogue. All of it — desires, fears, conversation — blurs together. Everyone is corrupted, venal and rotten. Now what?

Hnath is one of those modern playwrights who reject conclusions. As a result, the end is ambiguous to the point of opacity. A stray line hints at the possibility of Tina's fate, and Maxine remains on the brink of death, but that's all we get. Death Tax is not so much a journey as it is a ramble to nothing in particular.

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