by: Susan Hasho
The play H2O by Jane Martin opens: A young woman, Deborah, enters onto an open stage and says she is a Christian and an actress, (“Actually, Jesus doesn’t have much to say about actresses.”) and moves off. Barefoot guy, Jake, comes onstage and delivers a joke: A man walks into a bar and orders three whiskies… for him and his three brothers; comes back only orders two. Bartender wants to know why only two. Guy says: “I just quit drinking.” And then Jake slits his wrists. The young woman, Deborah, seen at the opening, then enters this scene for an audition with him—and ends up saving his life. One-two punch—effective opening and precursor to what is to come in the next 80 minutes.
Jake is a famous movie star unimpressed by his action figure output and his fame. As a matter of fact, he hates himself for it. He has taken on the role of Hamlet in a Broadway production because his action film character had almost no dialogue; and he wants to prove he can act—and speak. He decides he wants to get very Christian Deborah to be Ophelia because having decided he can trust her, he wants her to be there with him in his terrifying process of coming out as a viable actor.
In a way, though deeply theatrical, Jane Martin sets this play up like a sort of philosophical experiment: What happens when you put a desperate, self-destructive actor and a rigorously principled and ambitious actress together and shake with a Broadway opening deadline? First of all, Jane Martin manages to avoid almost every possible cliché. And secondly, the fact that they are actors serves to trick us into thinking we know how this is going to turn out. And we don’t. This play takes on deep philosophical and moral issues in a sharply acerbic and entertaining way, almost undercover. It is clever, sometimes funny and surprisingly raw—just when you think you’re in familiar territory, it pulls you out.
As the events roll on, Deborah meets each attempt by Jake to draw her closer, seduce her, enlist her in his self-defeating ways of surviving his pain; she responds, “…you allow everything to be demeaned is what my Dad calls soul sickness…and the temporal answer, for me, is Shakespeare—the beauty he makes out of the mess we’re in. So I find it infuriating that you offer me the one thing I truly want but you make it meaningless. And, that, laugh at this one, is the devil’s handiwork” Checkmate. The only problem with Deborah’s moral high ground is that she would like to help him, but is shutting herself off from him at the same time. Jesus Christ talks to her but she can’t teach Jake the language. However, by the end of the play, Jake finds his own way.
The actors are beautifully clear and often electric. Alex Podulke as Jake sneaks up on you. At first offhanded and casual, he moves so subtlety from charming dry humor into the true core of his pain, that as self-centered as he seems, his character almost demands a loving response. Diane Mair as Deborah manages to make a stiff spine eloquent and eventually tragic. She makes a complicated journey with ease and enormous truth.
The director had to have been brilliant —no play achieves this level of artistry without a graceful hand, and West Hyler has clearly done a beautiful job fulfilling the intentions of this play and the talent of his actors.
Running until December 13th—don’t miss it!
Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212)
279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.
Photos: David Arsenault