Cold Storage

Vox Theatre Company, Montgomery County Cultural Center, 208 De Kalb St., Norristown, through June 21, (610) 279-4248

Wheelchair-bound Joseph Parmigian (Guil Fisher) is in his 60s, owns a fruit and vegetable store, and is in the advance stages of "The Big C," cancer. Richard Landau (Morgan P. Baker) is in his 40s, is an art and antiques investment advisor (in every way a yuppie, if it weren't 1973, before that term was invented), and is in the hospital for exploratory surgery, so neither he nor we know yet whether he has the Big C or not. Parmigian is Armenian, Landau Jewish; Parmigian is brash and vulgar and loquacious, Landau refined and withdrawn and sullen.

And there you have it. Ronald Ribman's 1977 play Cold Storage, currently being revived by Vox Theatre Company, follows from this premise, or rather it's confined to it, just as Parmigian is confined to his wheelchair and urine bag. Parmigian asks Landau to help him roll his wheelchair over the railings of the rooftop patients' lounge (a lovely realistic setting, uncredited in the program). They talk (or Parmigian talks, and Landau tries not to listen) about life and death, precious antique lacquered Chinese boxes and rotting fruit, disposable incomes and disposable lives.

The more Parmigian talks, the more we see that Landau has more of a story than he's telling. And that leaves three different paths we can expect the play to take: A) we can wait long enough and find out what Landau is too embarrassed or too private or too tortured to talk about, which will suddenly create a bond of friendship and philosophical kinship between him and Parmigian; B) Landau can remain silent, and through his relative silence he and Parmigian can generate a set of profound philosophical truths about life and death, combining carpe diem and momento mori; or C) Landau can remain silent, and he and Parmigian can talk at Pinteresque cross-purposes, dramatizing the unreliability of language and the unknowability of other people and of one's mortality.

Cold Storage takes the first path.

[READER'S ALERT: skip this paragraph if you'd prefer to be surprised.] If you do wait long enough, Landau finally and reluctantly delivers his inescapable Long Autobiographical Monologue, the story of his family's flight from the Nazis, and his narrow escape from his family's fate on being deported from wartime Portugal. Survivor guilt is somehow thematically connected to surviving, or not surviving, cancer. But what is that connection? I never did get it, nor the connection of the title to questions of life, death, cancer and love. Landau's narrative accounts for, but it doesn't explain; the big philosophical truths that follow don't cohere (though it all might have proven too pat and too contrived if they all had); and Ribman has laid too many of his cards on the table to be Pinteresque.

Notwithstanding, the play does receive a first-rate production from director Michael Purkis, with admirable production values and solid performances from Fisher and Baker, whose Long Autobiographical Monologue is genuinely touching.

At the end of the first act, Parmigian advises Landau how to get sufficient attention in the cancer ward: fake unusual symptoms, so that the medical teams making their rounds will take an interest, with the hopes of getting a scholarly article or two out of you. "Remember what I said to you," he shouts at Landau: "Be interesting!"

Next patient.

-Cary M. Mazer