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STAGE REVIEW

Promise collides with complications in ‘Last Day’

Francisco Solorzano (left) and Timothy John Smith star in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “Last Day’’ in Gloucester. Francisco Solorzano (left) and Timothy John Smith star in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “Last Day’’ in Gloucester. (Gary Ng)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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GLOUCESTER - Before “Last Day’’ finally and fatally succumbs to soap operatics, it shows some promise as a Mamet-style immersion in a gritty milieu whose rough-edged characters have to face the glum fact that every road leads to a dead end.

Dead being the operative word. “Last Day,’’ a new drama by Richard Vetere now at Gloucester Stage Company in a production directed by Eric C. Engel, is set in a Roman Catholic cemetery on Long Island. At one point, a skull is lifted from the ground, and yes, someone makes the inevitable “Alas, poor Yorick’’ wisecrack.

Vetere, whose “The Marriage Fool,’’ “Gangster Apparel,’’ “First Love,’’ and “Three Sisters From Queens’’ have also been performed at Gloucester Stage, shows an undeniable knack for pungently hard-boiled dialogue. It is when “Last Day’’ turns soft-boiled and even squishy that the play goes astray, with increasingly overwrought exchanges and a love-triangle plot twist that seems less revelatory and resonant than arbitrary and dated.

It’s the last day on the job for a retiring cemetery worker named Ryan (Timothy John Smith), who wears a grimy beard and a backward-facing baseball cap, and whose years of hard labor are evident in his weary movements. “We’re the faceless guys holdin’ shovels, standing in the back waiting for the last rose to be thrown in the hole,’’ Ryan says.

Indeed, Ryan is seldom without his shovel. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a fellow in his line of work, he is also prone to ruminations on the ways of God, the nature of good and evil, and the role Satan might play in human affairs.

Just as Ryan is prepared to lay down his shovel for good, an unwelcome complication arises for him and his best friend, Sean (Francisco Solorzano), a supervisor for the cemetery union. An archdiocesan official calls with the news that there has been, in Sean’s words, “a rush on dead Catholics,’’ and they need to be interred in Section 15 of the cemetery.

Problem is, that’s where Sean buried another cemetery employee, called Billy Sr., after Ryan murdered him a decade earlier. He buried Billy Sr. in Section 15 even though Ryan had explicitly told him to bury the man elsewhere, in an exclusive section of the cemetery that is considered “hallowed ground,’’ and where the body would thus be unlikely to be discovered.

Billy Sr. was an odious bully who made no secret of his hankering for Sean’s sexy wife, Melissa (Therese Plaehn). After Billy Sr.’s death, Sean was promoted to his job.

Now, as an infuriated Ryan points out to a shaken Sean, the crime will be discovered and his world will fall apart “if they find one fingernail’’ of the victim. It doesn’t help matters that Billy Jr., the murder victim’s son, has never stopped looking for answers. In fact, the suspicious son has told Sean that he is training to be a police officer, prompted by the circumstances of his father’s disappearance.

So the net is tightening. No sooner have they begun to move Billy Sr.’s body than still another complication enters the equation. Tensions among Ryan, Sean, and Melissa begin to intensify; they learn a few things about one another. However, in a crucial scene where Ryan drops a bombshell on Sean, Solorzano’s back is to two-thirds of the audience, so we can’t see his reaction.

As the trio moves on and around the faded green slope of the cemetery designed by Jenna McFarland Lord, they wrestle with the question of what they are capable of, behind which lurks the related question of why, exactly, Ryan murdered Billy Sr. all those years ago.

Plaehn, a native of Scituate, endows Melissa with a chip-on-the-shoulder combativeness that contains a ruthless edge, while Solorzano’s Sean, with a perpetually worried look on his boyish visage, offers a countervailing gentleness, coupled with the hapless quality of a man hopelessly in over his head.

At the center of the action is Smith, a fine and versatile actor who moves smoothly back and forth from musicals to drama. He starred in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Nine’’ earlier this year, and he appeared recently in Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella’’ at Gloucester Stage. His portrait of Ryan bristles with an authenticity that survives some of the character’s more portentous utterances. But no actor in a nonmusical should ever be required to say a line like “Thank you for letting me dream through your smile.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

LAST DAY

Play by Richard Vetere

Directed by: Eric C. Engel

Sets, Jenna McFarland Lord. Lights, John R. Malinowski. Costumes, Fabian Aguilar. Sound, Dewey Dellay.

At: Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through Aug. 7. Tickets: $37. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.org