Most of us want to live a long life… of as many years as possible. But are we living the life we have to the fullest? Faced with certain death, would you be satisfied with what you’ve done so far? That’s what STEAMBATH, the play now at the Odyssey Theatre, sends you home considering.
Written in 1970 by Jewish writer Bruce Jay Friedman, STEAMBATH was immediately considered controversial due to its political incorrectness. In it, several strangers find themselves in a steambath that turns out to be sort of a purgatory – a place where dead people are still aware of their life on earth, without having yet arrived to their “final destination.” God is Puerto Rican and an attendant who comes in and out of the steambath mopping, cleaning, and capriciously deciding (in front of a computer) the future of every human on earth. Things run smoothly until a new arrival refuses to accept his death and demands to be sent back to earth. He still has much to accomplish, he insists.
Why is God a Puerto Rican? About it, the author has said that when the play came to his mind he “vacationed now and then in Puerto Rico, became conscious of the Puerto Rican/New York accent [and] it all came together.” So it appears to be a case of why not.
At the Odyssey, STEAMBATH is directed by Ron Sossi, and God is played by Mexican-American comedian Paul Rodriguez. Rodriguez does not mimic a Puerto Rican accent. Instead, he uses that particular way to speaking that is very much his signature. He is quick with his lines, adding a distinct Latin flavor to the part, singing Tito Puente songs and throwing in a dance step or two.
Another seven souls discuss their previous earthly lives while wearing only towels around their waists. (Shelby Lauren Barry, as Meredith, gets to wear a towel around her torso, but John Moskal, as Oldtimer, loses his towel altogether for a few minutes.)
Jeff Lebeau is Tandy, who refuses to accept his death and pleads to be sent back to earth. His delivery makes the author’s intentions clear. When talking about one’s longevity, what is more important – quality or quantity?
STEAMBATH’s political incorrectness may both surprise and amuse you. Measured by our modern sensibilities, the play is at times both racist and misogynistic. While this production of STEAMBATH removed some offensive parts, it kept most of the original dialogue hoping that the audience will remember that the context of the humor is almost 50 years old. It also has a few additions, such as a jab to Republicans here and there.
You go into STEAMBATH hoping for a few laughs (well, with a comedian in it and all) and, although it is entertaining, the play gives you more food for thought than what you would expect. It’s sort of a vehicle for retro inspection – let’s live long, but let’s live well.
STEAMBATH will perform through Dec. 16. Tickets range $32 to $37, with “Tix for $10” on Nov. 23 and Dec. 5. (Find tickets here.) The play is recommended for mature audiences due to adult themes and partial nudity.
The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., in Los Angeles CA 90025.