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Theatre in Review: In the Secret Sea (Theatre Row)

Malachi Cleary (standing), Shelly Burch, Paul Carlin, Glynnis O'Connor. Photo: Carol Rosegg

It's typical of Cate Ryan's overemphatic sense of irony that she sets In the Secret Sea, a long-winded debate about abortion, on Easter Sunday. Gil and Joyce, a well-off couple living in suburban Connecticut -- he's in real estate -- have just returned from Sunday Mass and are preparing to host a dinner for their son, Kenny, and his wife, Gail, along with Gail's parents, Jack and Audrey. After some lengthy exposition, establishing that Gil and Joyce, under their light banter, are surprisingly at loggerheads -- "Why do we sleep in separate bedrooms?" he asks, a funny question to bring up decades into a marriage -- Kenny arrives, looking and acting clinically depressed. After deflecting their questions for a few minutes, he comes clean: The baby Gail is carrying is severely malformed, missing part of its brain, and hasn't the tiniest chance of turning out normal. It also has a ten percent chance of survival.

Kenny's lame attempts at avoiding the subject make no sense, since he has clearly been dispatched to break the news to Gil and Joyce; Gail is simultaneously delivering the bad news to her parents. Next, Jack and Audrey show up -- Gail has mysteriously gone back home -- and, weirdly, everyone makes small talk, pretending that this is a normal holiday dinner. Then Jack blurts out the news and soon everyone is yelling at everyone else. First come the recriminations: Gail was once in rehab and Kenny did drugs in college; did someone mess up his or her DNA? Pointed questions are asked about the possible congenital nature of the problem. But this is just the warm-up for the main event, in which everyone stakes a position, defending it with pit-bull tenacity. Gil wants Gail to carry the baby to term, on the off chance that everything will turn out all right; the others disagree. The arguments boil down to the following points: (1) abortion is murder, and (2) the woman has the right to choose. But then you knew that.

If the point of Ryan's play is to show that arguments about abortion generate more heat than light, she has succeeded magnificently. Otherwise, In the Secret Sea is a tired rehash of the obvious talking points, served up with a minimum of nuance. (It isn't until near the end that facts are brought to bear on the discussion, when Gil searches the Internet for information on the baby's syndrome, finding images that leave everyone repelled.) The author stacks the deck by presenting a case that will leave all but the most hardened pro-lifer in the audience rooting for termination; it would have been far more interesting if the baby suffered from a less debilitating disorder, in which survival wasn't an issue, or if there was a better chance of a good outcome. Strangely, Gail -- the woman who must make the decision -- never shows up, her absence never clearly explained. After a while, one starts to wonder, who cares what these people think? They don't have to choose.

In the Secret Sea represents a rare dramatic staging by Martin Charnin, whose career has been spent almost entirely in musicals, and he handles this awkward script awkwardly. His cast clearly needs help: Gil is a moralistic boor, actively irritating in his refusal to entertain any other point of view, and Paul Carlin can't redeem him. Malachy Cleary's Jack is supposed to be comically vulgar -- "What are those black flecks in the cheese?" he asks, glaring at a piece of chèvre -- but he soon wears out his welcome. As Audrey, Shelly Burch waves her arms incessantly, milking every line for melodramatic effect. Rather better is Glynnis O'Connor as Joyce, who makes good use of stillness while everyone else around her emotes wildly. Her big confession of a long-held Big Secret -- this kind of play is nothing without one -- is easily the most interesting thing on offer, even if it isn't totally convincing. Adam Petherbridge captures something of Kenny's terrible ambivalence, although he is saddled with a mawkish final monologue (which includes a bit of Yeats' "The Stolen Child") that explains his and Gail's decision.

At least In the Secret Sea has a polished design. The set, by Beowulf Boritt and Alexis Distler, is a photorealistic representation of upper-middle-class comfort, with matching sofa and chair, elaborate window treatments, and such details as model ships, 19th-century prints, and a cocktail cart, the latter of which gets quite a workout as the arguments grow increasingly tense. Ken Billington provides seamless, understatedly attractive lighting. Suzy Benzinger's costumes show a real understanding of how these people would dress. Kevin Heard's sound design includes some well-executed cues.

But this is an especially dreary evening that tips its hand far too early yet still allows its characters to express their clichés at length. If you've ever wondered what ninety minutes of hand-wringing might be like, this is the show for you. -- David Barbour

(22 April 2016)

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