BPT’s ‘Legally Dead’ just misses the mark

BOSTON — The Boston Playwrights Theatre is like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

That’s because the BPT’s currency is new works, and risk-taking and theatrical adventure are the order of the day, and it’s hard to know what you really have until a work is fully mounted and put in front of an audience.

Unfortunately, the BPT’s current production of Dan Hunter’s “Legally Dead” misses the mark. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the production never achieves liftoff.

The characters, despite a strong cast and a capable director in Steven Bogart, never rise above the level of 2-D caricatures, don’t evoke empathy or disgust, and at the end of 100 minutes we’re left adrift.

It isn’t really a black comedy, because it’s not quite dark enough or funny enough.

BPT presumably had high hopes for this work after Hunter’s earlier BPT production, “Red Elm,“ won strong notices.

The premise sounds promising. In Peoria, Ill., the Lincoln family and their Cadillac dealership have been local institutions for generations. Unfortunately, since the patriarch of the family went missing five years ago, the family has devolved into a dysfunctional mess.

Kippy Goldfarb is Mother Marsha, who is permanently in La-La Land and spends most of the time hiding booze from her caretaker, her come-to-Jesus daughter Rebecca (Jen Alison Lewis). The very capable Adrianne Krstansky is Annie, the divorced daughter and lawyer who is hell-bent on getting her father legally declared dead and using the proceeds from his estate to keep the gambling leg-breakers at bay. Christopher James Webb is brother Tommy ,who has remerged from a much-deserved prison stint with designs on becoming the CEO of the dealership — by hook or by crook.

The action begins on Christmas Eve, with Marsha looking forward to a reunion that sees all four members of the family together for the first time since, well, Tommy’s attempt to have them all bumped off by a hired hitman.

Annie attempts to get all the family members to sign off on a document to have dad declared legally dead, allowing the family’s assets to be unfrozen and their namesake car dealership to be sold.

There’s one major problem: the will can’t be found. It’s probably somewhere in the closet where Walter, the family dog, likes to tinkle, but Walter himself has also gone missing. The action then centers around keeping Walter’s demise secret and seeing how many different places Marsha can hide her booze. There’s guns, threats, revelations, phony wills, but the end left us asking the Peggy Lee question: Is that all there is?

A special mention for David Wilson’s creative sound and light design and set designer Christina Todesco’s dazzlingly garish electric blue kitchen festooned with bizarre Christmas decorations (including Santa’s sleigh being pulled by flamingos).

Perhaps Hunter can go back to the drawing board with the piece and reemerge with something more worthwhile. It just so happened this time, he missed the mark.

The Boston Playwrights Theatre production of Dan Hunter’s “Legally Dead.” Directed by Steven Bogart. At the Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. http://www.bu.edu/bpt/