Rachel Bloom tells us she wants to perform the show she had planned to perform before COVID lumbered into our lives. And so, first in her self-written Death, Let Me Do My Show (Lucille Lortel Theatre, to Sept 30), Bloom launches into an opening song about trees that “smell like cum.” But then, as the title suggests, Death intervenes very directly. Critics mentioning how have been asked to say: warning, spoilers ahead, so consider the warning written.
The show wishes to keep the manner of Death’s intervention as much of a surprise as possible, but—performatively speaking—it is such a significant intrusion that it would be strange to omit mention of it. It is not a momentary, or a cameo; even when Death (the excellent David Hull) is not on stage, it is extremely audible—and its jousting, needling presence is the engine of the play.
The Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Bloom reveals that Death came to shadow her—as it did for so many—in the spring of 2020. Its presence first announced itself when the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star gave birth just as the world headed into lockdown, and it was revealed that her newborn daughter had fluid on her lungs. Then COVID kills a close friend and collaborator. Then her shrink.
The title card of the show shows Bloom as a pulpy-novel heroine in full, dramatic flight from the Grim Reaper. Bloom is an extremely funny performer, so this interrogation of death—and how its becoming a known in one’s life changes one’s life and understanding of what life means—is also very funny. She sings a song about the “rainbow bridge” those who have pets imagine as the gateway to heaven for their passed-away furry loved ones. At this moment and others director Seth Barrish and projection designer Hana S. Kim inject visuals—from wittily playful to extremely stark—to underscore Bloom’s points.
Bloom notes how time—having been such a nebulous concept—becomes “granular” during pregnancy. “Six weeks in, you can hear the heartbeat, 12 weeks in, you’re out of the riskiest part, 13 weeks in, you can learn the sex, 20 weeks in, you have this anatomy scan where you make sure the baby’s organs are all okay, 25 weeks in, your husband now can only fuck you from behind.”
Bloom wonders why Wiley, her beloved dog, refused her breast milk. “This dog regularly eats dirty panties, she spends every night licking my husband’s feet like it’s her evening martini, but she took one sniff of my breast milk and walked away. It’s like, okay, dog, I taught you sit and stay, not right from wrong.”
When faced with her baby daughter’s health crisis, she ponders why she’s been contemplating the mortality of her dog.
The NICU, she observes, “is both the saddest room I’ve ever been in but also looks like a fucked-up baby spa because a lot of (are in) for something called jaundice and the treatment for it is for them to lie under a sunlamp with huge goggles on their faces. It looks fucking stupid. So I’m sobbing, meanwhile a baby next to me is like, in a seaweed wrap, another baby’s doing cool sculpting.” (The best song of the play is a divinely silly, pointed take-off of “Dear Evan Hansen.”)
Bloom tells us of the stress of having an ill child in a health system of COVID protocols, meaning that she returns home, casting off clothes in the front yard just as the neighbors are out banging pots and pans in support of healthcare workers. “As I ran in the house naked it felt like I was part of some sort of erotic Greek finger cymbal dance.”
Bloom wonders, is she really still an atheist, given her experiences of panic and grief—now that has now been touched by death? One prayer she finds herself saying is to promise God that if they make everything O.K. she’ll go from not believing to being agnostic. One song, adeptly balancing humor and insight, sees Bloom decrying the idea of ghosts, and the comfort and intrigue the idea of them offer; the truth is that “nothing happens after death.”
“Is a Civil War soldier whose face has been destroyed/Really as scary as an unfeeling void?” she sings.
The truth, says Bloom, is that her brush with death, “really a brush once removed,” has “completely fucked with the way I see the world.” She cannot emotionally and intellectually un-know it. The silly songs and jokes she desperately tries to return to at the end, her happy place, are forever tainted and undermined.
And yet, still, at the end, Bloom does make us laugh. But there is no easy reconciliation with Death; what we finally see, what Bloom finally imagines, is an uneasy tango to that “cum tree” song. The living, Bloom astutely concludes, don’t have a choice. Sorry for the downer, she intimates, but jokes can’t and don’t help. We must all live with Death.