World premiere of ‘Death, With Benefits’ opens at Theatre 40

By Shari Barrett

Photo credit: Eric Keitel SINISTER INTENTIONS—Mary and Duscha bring homeless Joe indoors to accomplish a very sinister plan for his future and their fortune. From left are Susan Damante, Larry Eisenberg and Cheryl David.

DEATH, WITH BENEFITS is billed as a dark comedy “inspired” by the terribly true story of the infamous “Killer Grannies of Santa Monica,” Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt, also known as the “Black Widows.” They lured two homeless men into their ‘care’ and knocked them off in 1999 and 2005 in order to claim the insurance money due from policies the women took out on each man. Written by John Strysik, the play centers around two mature ladies, Mary Helmsworth (Susan Damante) and Duscha Gehenlegen (Cheryl David), who, after meeting during an exercise class, bond over the awful emotional and financial situations in which their deceased husbands have left them. Mary, it turns out, owns an apartment building in need of repair, and Duscha convinces Mary to offer her a place to stay in exchange for handyman services, which works at first. But of course, there is never enough money to keep not only the women but the tenants satisfied, especially one who calls continuously complaining about no hot water. To fix their predicament, the women concoct a pernicious get rich plan: take in sickly men and get them to sign lavish life insurance policies naming them as beneficiaries. The only problem is their guests are not passing away quickly enough, so the ladies decide to speed up the process. Damante and David are thoroughly devoted to their characters, but something about their friendship seemed forced and not as natural as it should have been. Unfortunately, David’s overbearing Eastern European accent made it almost impossible to understand what Duscha was saying. Thus, the initial humor between the two women as they get to know one another was often lost to the audience, making their pauses for laughter greeted with silence. And while the premise seemed promising, this world premiere play is desperately in need of major editing as the ultra-slow pace destroys much of the intended humor, with extra-loud operatic music blasted over loudspeakers at a decibel that shook the walls.

The five male characters in the play are portrayed by three actors who give it their all, but as directed by Jeff G. Rack as a farce, their over-the-top performances seemed unbalanced rather than stylized. Kevin Dulude opens the play by wandering onto the stage much too long as a doddering old man with a walker, confused by the answering machine while doing his best to find something to eat. But of course, given how thrifty the women attempt to be, the refrigerator and freezer are chain-locked. Dulude later visits as Duscha’s much younger and very gay hairdresser, a role Dulude played to the hilt. Phil Sokoloff is believable as a Policeman who follows up on the first death of a man in the woman’s care, then later takes on the role of Bill, the third gentlemen taken in by the woman who manages to bring his own sense of reality in to overpower the women at their own game. But it is Larry Eisenberg who chews the scenery and steals the show during his long death scene after drinking wine tainted with Valarian Root provided by the ladies. Eisenberg dies and revives so many times, when he finally does kick the bucket and the two women have to get rid of his body, laughs abounded as they attempted, rather gruffly, to remove the evidence as quickly as possible.

Technical credits, as always, are top notch at Theatre 40, from Jeff G. Rack’s artistic and workable set design, lighting design by Derrick McDaniel, sound design by Nick Foran (even though a bit too loud). costume design by Michèle Young which includes Pop Art style designs for the ladies, with frequently changing wigs/hair/make-up design by Judi Lewin. Director Rack believes “through comedy, we can more safely look at people who choose the wrong path and how they are able to justify their actions. It is amazing what anger, frustration, greed and fear can lead people to do. How they are able to divorce themselves from any sense of humanity and create a reality where they believe that what they are doing is somehow okay.” And I can certainly think of several ways that scenario has played out during these past two pandemic years.

The world premiere engagement of “Death, With Benefits” is produced for Theatre 40 by David Hunt Stafford. Performances continue through Feb. 20, on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Free parking is available in the parking lot adjacent to the theatre by entering through the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives and following signs. Reserved seat admission is $35, with reservations by calling 310-364-0535 or online ticketing at Tickets are also on sale at the box office prior to each show. Covid safety protocols in effect on performance dates will be observed, including providing proof of vaccination, wearing a mask, and having your temperature taken at the box office upon arrival.