Al is dead. His survivors — his boyfriend, his best girl friend, his best guy friend and his sister — are bereaved. They feel life without Al is no life at all. They grieve, and their grief is a sickness that longs for Al’s state of perfection, a perfection they can never achieve.
Al’s boyfriend Walter (JD Taylor) plays guitar. In breaks from the main narrative he gives concerts for an imaginary audience, though we come to realize that he’s actually playing for a bathtub half-full of yellow, rubber ducks. The best girlfriend Casey (Anna Stromberg) has always been a party girl, kind of Edie Sedgwick without money, a woman who stars in her own biopic that no one else cares about. The best guy friend Eli (Josh Evans) is a bro who functions as the group’s de facto Kramer, which is appropriate because the three of them constitute the core of what feels like a depressing, feature length episode of Seinfeld. If you were going to pitch this show to TV, you might say it’s Seinfeld meets The Big Chill.
Like all good Seinfeld set-ups, there are a few marginal characters who act as foils for the main characters’ drama. Al’s estranged sister Amy (Christine Mottram) arrives on the scene for his funeral and proceeds to sleep her way through the group. And Al’s personal assistant Petey (Zac Moon), a wannabe photographer that Al mentored and abused, pursues a grade-school flirtation with Casey.
Al himself is also a foil for the three survivors. He was famous. Nothing holds a group of people together like one famous person. He was talented, at least that’s what the critics said. His photography evidently earned enough money and fame to allow him the freedom to have an entourage. He was abusive. And as a famous, rich person he had every right to be. That is, after all, what keeps us watching them, envying them, emulating them: the desire for the kind of realness that allows you to make up your own rules.
Most thinking creatures fear death, but for the Artist death isn’t nearly as frightening as obscurity. Actors, lawyers, athletes, writers, rap stars, politicians and preachers are touched by the existential dread Kierkegaard called a “sickness unto death.” That sickness is a living death, separated from the intimate reality of Being (with a capital “B”) that one only achieves through other people’s recognition. As a famous person Al was Being for his friends, and without him they feel nearly dead. Their task (which they accomplish because this story has a happy ending) is to find a reason to go on living, separated from the reality of their former lives.
The actors do a fine job. Mr. Taylor is a very attractive, charismatic man, who tugs on the heart strings with his endearingly innocent smile and eyes of earnest longing. The set is a model of beautiful simplicity — functional and right to the smallest detail. The script and direction are as smooth and professional as anything Off Broadway. But Al’s absence is a fitting metaphor for what this play lacks. Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse is what the pretty young things used to say. That’s what Rubber Ducks is — a perfect, lifeless body that you file past at a funeral for someone you don’t know.