By Samuel L. Leiter
Three of New York’s best Off-Broadway actors are attempting to keep Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship afloat in Margot Bordelon’s generally effective production for the Playwrights Realm. (Ziegler’s Photograph 51 opens this week in London with Nicole Kidman.) Sometimes compelling but too often talky and irritating, A Delicate Ship, on the surface at least, is a straightforward, seventy-five minute, romantic triangle drama.
Sarah (Miriam Silverman), a social worker, and her boyfriend, Sam (Matt Dellapina), a paralegal cum musician/philosopher, are enjoying a romantic Christmas Eve at her place when in bursts Sarah’s old friend Nate (Nick Westrate). Identified as a third grade teacher (something of a stretch once you get to know him), he and Sarah grew up together but he harbors an obsessive love for her that she has never taken seriously. Nate, who did not know about Sam (and vice-versa), works himself up to a state of jealous anxiety, and does everything he can to destroy the lovers’ budding love affair.
Most of the action occurs on one night in Sarah’s Brooklyn apartment, a generic space with a river view, designed by Reid Thompson; there’s an upstage door but no walls, and a pebble-strewn perimeter serves for exteriors. Toward the end, a sort of overextended epilogue takes us into the future to learn what eventually happened to the characters. Unfortunately, it disrupts the play’s structural integrity.
To heighten the familiar scenario Ziegler lathers the dialogue with philosophical ruminations and artistic allusions, with references to figures such as Kierkegaard and Bruegel (Nate is likened to Icarus in one of the latter’s paintings, with a line about the painting from Auden providing the play’s title); issues of suffering, loneliness, loss, love, masculinity, parental attachments, and, above all, the vagaries of memory dominate the dialogue.
As Cheez Doodles, weed, wine, and Champagne are consumed, the frequently expository speeches, many of which describe events that happened in Nate and Sarah’s past (including the very night being dramatized), and which are usually recalled in different ways, are spoken both directly to the audience and to the other characters, with the play continually drifting from one level of discourse to the other.
Despite moments of dramatic intensity, including a sock in the face, the play—which premiered last year at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park—is cloaked in a literary aura that clouds emotional identification. A moment late in the action when Nate stands isolated in a pool of light, remembering events in heightened prose, is sharply reminiscent of Tom’s concluding monologue in The Glass Menagerie, a far more moving moment in a truly haunting memory play.
Nate, the dramatic catalyst, is played by Westrate with such fervent Jesse Eisenberg-like nervous intensity—gesticulating wildly, sitting crunched up in a corner of the sofa (shoes on, of course), or perched along its back—that, for all his neediness and unquiet desperation, his pleas for Sarah’s affection and disdain for Sam grow so obnoxious that you wonder why Sarah is so feckless about kicking him out; “Get thee to a shrinkery,” one longs to shout. Silverman, otherwise superb, is not helped here by Ziegler’s script. More consistent is Dellapina’s Sam, a too complacent guy baffled by threatening circumstances he’s unprepared to handle but rising to the occasion when his well of patience runs out.
Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship doesn’t quite sink, but it’s nonetheless a somewhat leaky vessel.
A Delicate Ship, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, through September 12. http://www.playwrightsrealm.org/.
*Photo Jenny Anderson