In Death Takes a Holiday, a gently funny, philosophical (though underwritten) 1920s-era play by Alberto Casella, and the inspiration for the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, the Grim Reaper doffs his shroud for a three-day lark to uncover the human experience — and falls in love.

Whether from discomfort with the play’s more existential elements or anxiety over its subtle pacing, Tom Eubanks’ production now playing at the Santa Paula Theater Center opts for camp over comedy. Both the production and its audience would be better served by a more nuanced approach.

In a 1930s Italian villa, a large party gathers for a weekend. The son of a duke (TJ Mora) is engaged to marry the lovely Grazia (Jennifer Ridgway), but his ethereal fiancée remains reluctant to set a date. At opening, what should have been a lethal car accident has mysteriously left everyone unscathed. Then saunters in Death (Eric Mello), who confronts the duke (Gary Cunial) and lays out his demands for a staycation: he shall be treated as a mortal; he is not to be trifled with; no one shall know his secret. All living creatures will meanwhile enjoy a reprieve from decay.

Here we get into trouble. The script’s rather dull first half gets bogged down with dialogue-heavy ensemble scenes. No wonder the story was streamlined for Hollywood; Casella’s script is rife with thinly written characters whose connections to each other stay hazy. The cast does its best to fill these gaps, but few Americans can pull off a credible Italian accent, and only Cunial manages it successfully.

Then, in an apparent attempt to punch up the action, Death’s entrance gets a cape-swishing, Scooby Doo villainy. There is humor written here, certainly. But Mello goes so over the top, either due to faulty direction or misguided instincts, that he seems to be channeling an enraged Christian Bale — with gravelly voice to match. Entertaining, but probably not in the way intended.

Luckily, things turn around in the second half. Accents are downplayed, and Mello in human form, as a Russian prince, has a bemused, pleasing air more befitting his station. It’s then that his reputation as a ladies’ man and his seduction of Grazia hit full-tilt.

Cunial does a fine turn as the conflicted master of the house, and Vivien Latham is elegantly distraught as Grazia’s mother. Best of all is Ridgway herself, whose willowy looks are accentuated by Barbara Pedziwiatr’s costumes and perfectly suited to the dreamy, fragile heroine.

I won’t spoil the ending, which both surprises and invites reflection. The play’s strongest moments involve the prince’s earnest, all-too-human quest for understanding. Throughout, he aches for someone to look past his surface charm and accept his true nature. If only we as an audience had been trusted to do so. 

Death Takes a Holiday, through Dec. 23 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula, 525-4645 or