Ever hear the joke about the two guys with terminal brain tumors who decide to beat death to the punch? A Jew and a WASP dress up in tuxes, rent a presidential suite stocked with their favorite booze and call some hookers to help them go orgasmic into that good night. OK, so the subject matter and setup of, and even the quietly heartbreaking backstories in, actor-playwright Todd Susman's play are a little derivative — Leaving Las Vegas and Marsha Norman's play 'Night, Mother spring to mind — but some very clever writing and smart performances make this West Coast premiere much funnier and more mystical than the approach its predecessors took. Particularly interesting is Susman's deliberate trafficking in stereotypes. Old-monied Dickie Rice (Andrew Parks) is haughty as he hurls three strikes in quick succession at an African-American hooker, sniffing, "Do you know who I am?" and referring to her "Aunt Jemima" style of speaking. Sad-clown sitcom writer Irwin Schimmel (Paul Linke) turns his poison pen on himself and his Jewish heritage, and Catorce Martinez's (Terasa Sciortino) inability to understand English subtleties is the source of many jokes. But in electing Princess Lay-Ya (a very sharp Sandra Thigpen) queen pin, Susman gives the underdog the upper hand, which Lay-Ya uses to force the superficialities aside to reveal the very real, raw pain coursing beneath. After such deep diving, the resurface at play's end is a little easy; nevertheless, the whole shebang is a much more entertaining evening than the premise portends. Chris DeCarlo directs. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3:30 p.m., through June 26. (310) 394-9779.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3:30 p.m. Starts: Feb. 18. Continues through June 26, 2011