By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 12, 2023: Tragedy and comedy are generally considered the flip sides of the dramatic experience: with one the pain is great enough to make you cry; with the other, the pleasure is great enough to make you laugh. In classical Greek drama, tragedy and comedy rarely mingle, but in later drama the boundaries often blur. Why else do we have such neologisms as dramedy? Many of the best plays that delve into the most serious issues of life and death have comic moments, just as the funniest plays are often about the direst situations. The leading standup comics, of course, recognize the close connection between the tragic and the comic, as witness Mike Birbiglia’s brilliant The Old Man & the Pool last season, in which he had his audience in stitches with stories about his life-threatening illnesses.
In the same vein is Michal Cruz Kayne’s Sorry for Your Loss, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, in which Kayne holds the stage for 75 minutes, garnering laughs from a monologue inspired by the death in 2009 of one of his twin sons, only about a month old at the time. Produced by Audible Theater, and crisply staged by Josh Sharp, this piece, which bears definite resemblances to Mr. Birbiglia’s even more accomplished (and funnier) work, is set up as a conventional standup routine. Thus, before Kayne appears, we see—in Scott Banakis’s design—a black stool (a bottle of water on it) sitting in a circle of light (design by Cha See) next to a standing ghost light, with a black curtain at the rear hanging before a brick wall. Soon, a stagehand will supply a standing mic.
Kayne wears designer jeans, rolled up at the cuffs, white sneakers, and a gray hoodie (costume by Rodrigo Muñoz); he’s as likably familiar an everyday dude-next-door as so many of his profession. Like Birbiglia, he’s married, has kids, and lives in Brooklyn. An award-winning writer on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Kayne is likewise known for his podcast, “A Good Cry,” about dealing with grief, the same subject as Sorry for Your Loss.
Kayne sets things up by telling us he was once an NYU student of musical theatre; reveals that, despite most people assuming he’s white, he’s actually half-Asian (Filipino; the other half being white Jewish); jokes about how many Filipinos become nurses; introduces his wife and kids, and so on. He likes to apologize to female spectators for being romantically unavailable. He also informs us that, in 2019, on the tenth anniversary of his baby’s death, his Twitter tweet about his feelings received over 140,000 responses, surprising him by the magnitude of the issue of grief, and inspiring his further consideration of it
At different times he offers mini-lectures using rolling whiteboards, and at others depends on some well-done projections (often of family photos) by Aaron Rhyne to expound satirically—but with definite educational value—on various matters, such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. To remind us we’re all going to die, he shows a slide listing many famous names, from the already dead, like George Bernard Shaw, to those who one day will be, like Jon Hamm and Lady Gaga.
The one-liners keep coming, and the audience laughs often and loud. So frequent and intense were such reactions, I thought I was a prisoner at a broadcast of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” sitting more or less mildly amused while those around me (like the woman in the next seat) were laughing their heads off. Much of the show consists of family anecdotes (like a blackface experience when his son made himself up as Mr. T for Halloween), but Kayne usually circles back to his theme of dealing with grief, emphasizing over and over how nothing is absolute but can be seen in more than one way. His manner always casual and moderately profane (lots of “f” words), he uses various basic, but compelling, examples, both mathematical and verbal, to demonstrate his thesis, now and then offering anecdotal diversions—like a skydiving experience.
The most heart-rending section deals with a detailed description of the premature birth (32 weeks) of his twins, and the death of one of them not long afterward, from a rare post-natal condition, followed by his inevitable depression (“How am I ever going to be happy again?”). Such grief, naturally, has affected almost everyone, whether it’s because of a loved one’s death (regardless of age), illness, or some other equally catastrophic experience. There’s a reason so many people join grief counseling groups.
Kayne has fun at the expense of some forms of grief management, like egregious examples of consolation cards available on the Internet. One of his best sequences shows projections of actual Twitter comments you have to see to believe. And a funeral parlor receipt will spring a yock even if you have lockjaw. A closing sequence, inspired by quantum physics (!?!), in which he suggests how this show somehow keeps his son alive is quite moving, its argument heightened by the clever manipulation of the many small, hanging globes that have appeared overhead.
Sorry for Your Loss is a perfect title, summing up in four words the impossibility we all feel in consoling the aggrieved. Yet, for all its obvious banality, the phrase offers a convenient way to express the inexpressible by showing that, even though we can’t do anything about it, we care, at least enough to share the sentiment. Check any Facebook thread dealing with news of a passing (whether of people or pets) to see how many can say little else. Kayne’s monologue—it’s hard to call it a “play”—at least allows us to agree that there are no simple solutions to handling grief, or commenting on it, while at the same time offering the opportunity to laugh at the dilemma.
Sorry For Your Loss
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through June 10, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniel