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Theatre in Review: A Delicate Ship (The Playwrights Realm/Peter Jay Sharp Theater)

Miriam Silverman, Nick Westrate. Photo: Jenny Anderson

If you're at home with the one you love on Christmas Eve and the doorbell rings, don't answer it. That's the moral I took away from A Delicate Ship, a rather implausible three-hander about what to do when the past comes calling. Sam and Sarah are cuddling on the couch, speaking to each other of love, when they get a surprise visit from Nate, Sarah's bosom childhood friend and adult intimate. All this is news to Sam, who, after three months of dating, thought he was familiar with at least the general outlines of his girlfriend's life. Suddenly, dawn breaks: "Sarah," Sam asks, "this isn't the guy who got so wasted he barfed on your friend's shoes while he was hitting on her at some high school party?"

Indeed he is, although the details of that event, like just about everything else in A Delicate Ship, is subject to the vagaries of memory. What seems clear is that, as children, Nate and Sarah were inseparable. As Nate recalls, they had the same bedroom, one floor apart: "Every night I slept on top of her." Sarah remembers that, at first glance, she assumed Nate was gay, a notion that, even now, provokes him mightily. Somewhere along the line, they've grown up and, despite Nate's insistence, they've grown apart -- which explains how neither Sam nor Nate know anything about each other.

Sarah is a social worker who has only recently been freed from paralyzing feelings of mourning following her father's death. Sam is a paralegal and musician with dreams of making it as a singer/songwriter. They more or less live in the present. Nate, in contrast, who is described by Sarah as "the saddest third-grade teacher I know," appears to have no life at all, outside the job he doesn't like. He has enshrined the past in his memory as a paradise lost -- and, at first, it appears that he has shown up at Sarah's door to relive those glory days once again. (It's interesting, and a little bit discomfiting, that Sarah doesn't remember the past in nearly such detail.) But after a few glasses of wine and some conversation that becomes edgier and edgier, it becomes obvious that Nate has come to claim Sarah for himself.

A Delicate Ship is meant to be a bittersweet comedy about the pull of the past, the addictive pain of nostalgia, and the terror of knowing that each day one lives is yet another forever taken from the finite amount. The playwright, Anna Ziegler, is also interested in how small incidents can have big repercussions, sending lives spinning in unexpected directions. She often has a nice way with a seemingly simple line that cuts right to her characters' fragile hearts. Describing herself as "the woman reading The New Yorker on the subway," Sarah adds, "I've had boyfriends but when you're 33 and not married and a woman, you've been alone a very long time." Sam, who is something of an armchair philosopher, says, "Think about the happiest moments in your life. Are you analyzing them? No, you analyze the bad stuff. You relive the bad stuff over and over again." Sarah describes Nate as "a dancer. A writer. A tightrope walker. A man on stilts. He is always ready with a joke. Always ready with a gin and tonic. Always ready with the right words. With elaborate plans and epic poems." Many of these comments are directed at us, since nearly half of the play consists of extensive passages of direct address; at times, it feels as if one is hearing selections from the novel that A Delicate Ship often seems to want to be.

If Ziegler's dialogue and character insights often have a touch of grace about them, her central situation is distressingly weak. For A Delicate Ship to work, we need to feel a sense of danger about the evening, of lives potentially changing course in dramatic fashion. And we need to feel that some potent unfinished emotional business still exists between Sarah and Nate. But none of this is really possible because Nate is less an agent provocateur than an Edward Albee nightmare, an unwanted guest, who, with each sip of wine, becomes increasingly exhibitionistic and abusive. He even forces a party game on Sarah and Sam, which only serves to make the situation more fraught. And in what sounds like an outtake from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or, perhaps, The Boys in the Band), he verbally flays Sam, telling him, "Mostly, your time and thought reside in the dark and drafty residence of one Mademoiselle Envy, and her little ward, schadenfreude, an impish child with acne and clubbed feet. The child you try to suppress but can't, and the former, the Mademoiselle, is everywhere." (Remember, Nate is supposed to be a heterosexual.) It would be easier to believe that Nate still had a hold on Sarah's heart if he didn't act like a borderline personality.

Nate is finally expelled, an act that has a more tragic outcome than anyone could imagine. And Ziegler neatly engineers a coda, set several years in the future, in which two of the characters reunite by chance and poignantly assess the effects the passing years have had on them. This scene only confirms that she is at her best writing intimate exchanges, not the rather clunky melodramatic confrontations that make up much of A Delicate Ship.

In any case, Margot Bordelon's direction is especially adept at slipping the characters in and out of the action, letting them seemingly comment on the scene even as it unfolds. Miriam Silverman fills Sarah with a marvelously transparent sadness acquired from the simple business of daily life; she makes Sarah's tolerant affection for Nate almost convincing and she is genuinely touching in her final appearance, which is not to be discussed here. Matt Dellapina is an appealingly gentle soul as Sam, who is blindsided by the emotional hurricane that is Nate; he also sings nicely. If Nick Westrate's Nate is simply too, too much, there doesn't seem to be any way to underplay him, and he does locate some authentic anguish in his later scenes.

Bordelon's direction helps in other ways, for example, in the elegant production design. Reid Thompson's set places the action on a raised deck set against an enormous projection of the Manhattan skyline at night. (Sarah's apartment is in Brooklyn.) Nicole Pearce uses some subtle sidelighting touches to add extra dimension to what could have been a fairly routine project. Sydney Maresca's costumes neatly contrast the men's differing styles of dress, which gives Nate another reason to lash out at Sam. Palmer Hefferan's affecting original music combines with a handful of crucial sound cues to help move the story along.

Anna Ziegler is a playwright on the move; another work, Photograph 51, is set to open soon in the West End, starring Nicole Kidman. A Delicate Ship has its virtues, but they are mostly those of prose, not drama; the play consists of some lovely descriptive passages gotten up around an inartful and unconvincing dramatic situation. She's clearly a writer, but is she a playwright? On that point, the jury is still deliberating. -- David Barbour

(27 August 2015)

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