You probably won't attend many wakes where the benediction, delivered by a priest with a Guinness in his hand and a flask in his pocket, is, "You are dead, we are not, all that's left for you is rot." Or one where the casket is a simple pine crate with the words "This side up" clearly indicating that the dear departed is, in fact, upside down. But at "Flanagan's Wake," the interactive theater production that opened last weekend at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway, the humor is decidedly black, and the drinks and laughter flow freely.
In the tradition of "Shear Madness," "Flanagan's Wake" is an intimate gathering in which the performers solicit suggestions that feed into improvisations on the script. In fact, viewers are conscripted as mourners the minute they walk in: Pounced on by actors playing Flanagan's friends, all are given name tags (everyone's first name is combined with Mary or Patrick).
Audience members are also urged to lift a pint, since the wake is being held in the pub-cum-town-hall of tiny Grapplin, in County Sligo, Ireland.
The premise allows a good deal of creative latitude, and the actors are lively and personable, if uneven and not always convincing. Still, their patter is rich with spontaneous, often bawdy riffs.
Father Fitzgerald (Steve Turner) begins the service by hawking his mail-order Catholic conversion kit, and he goes on about the Book of Kevin, the fifth Gospel he claims the pope is hiding.
Fiona (Kathleen Brophy), Flanagan's fiancee of 30 years, is a hoot as she circulates around the audience looking for sympathy, periodically clambering on top of the casket to show why she is considered a "champion keener."
Mother Flanagan (Bob Karish) is a crotchety crone who since her son's death has spoken only in a rare tongue (i.e. flamboyant gibberish) comically translated by Brian Ballybunion (TC Cheever).
When an audience member suggests the cause of Flanagan's demise, Brian and "crazy Kathleen" (Kerry Ann Dailey) offer tall tales elaborating how it happened. Though Marc Hirsh's Mickey Finn character was the least developed and a little stiff, he came up with an impressive improvised song using "a girl in a neon Maxima," "a green pickle," and "wind chill factor" in rhyming verse.
The humor is forced in spots, and some of the shtick went on way too long at Sunday's performance. But there were some hilarious one-liners and sight gags, and the bits that worked were terrific. One of the best was the tale spun by the mayor (Chuck Karvelas), using an idea from the audience.
Gloucester native Karvelas, the show's executive producer, was its most charming and convincing actor. He has the advantage of experience, having been part of the cast in Chicago, where the show has been running since 1994. "Flanagan's Wake" also boasts impressive runs in other cities, which is not surprising. This is one wake for which visiting hours just may have to be extended.
Originally conceived by Jack Bronis. Written by Jimmy Binns, Amy Binns-Calvey, Geoff Binns-Calvey, Jack Bronis, Mark Czoske, Phil Lusardi, Patricia Musker, and Bonnie Shadrake
Directed by: Mark Czoske. Presented by Chuck Karvelas.
At: Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway, Thursday through Sunday ; 617-591-1616.