Reviewed by Joel Greenberg
Coastal Disturbances, a Tony-nominated play by Tina Howe (1987 New York season), is a thin, awkward piece that is not enhanced by the current production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. I had hoped that I would have more positive things to say after having seen and disliked last week's visit to BTF's Unicorn Theatre production of "Tommy Flowers". Sadly, and with even more frustration, I left the theatre wondering if my timing has been less happy this year than in the recent past, or if perhaps the leadership of this feisty and enduring company needs to re-engage its collective imagination as it moves on with future plans.
Ms. Howe's play, set on an oceanfront beach of the central character's youth, explores the lives of several people who represent several generations. Chief among them are Leo, a lifeguard, and Holly, a photographer who is visiting her aunt while trying her best to reconcile a recent personal crisis. But the narrative is heavy-handed and the characters are more convenient as representative types than as three-dimensional men and women. In effect, the characters become the props necessary for Howe's overlapping puzzlement of relationships and where they lead. For instance, when Leo first declares his love for Holly, the play in no way prepares us or the characters for this revelation. Leo's explosive behaviour would seem more likely to elicit medical or police intervention than bemused reactions from the local bystanders.
In the second act, after Holly's lover has arrived to lure her back to New York and his smothering embrace, she tells Leo that, though she knows her relationship with the older man is unhealthy for her, being with this man always makes her feel "alive". The plain fact is that there is absolutely nothing provided by the writer or the production to even hint at this tension. What is provided suggests that Holly needs a solid period of therapy to address her self-destructive tendencies.This text is a lightweight effort wishing to be taken more seriously than it deserves.
The production, directed by Mark Nelson, is ragged. Many scene changes, accompanied by Scott Killian's very good score, reveal stage hands coming and going -- dressing them in casual beachwear doesn't help much -- and it all appears as though we're attending a late technical rehearsal or, at best, the very early stages of the play's run. The play's setting requires greater room than the BTF stage can provide, and so expressions of fear or anxiety directed to those standing on the lifeguard's tower serve only to diminish the reality that the playwright has tried to establish.
The production suffers, too, from a monotonous pace and what, by the second act, becomes an aimless focus. People come and people go, talking as they do, but never engaging us in their lives. Jeremy Davidson, as Leo, certainly has the physique for the role, but his diction undermines his body. Annie Parisse, as Holly, affects a certain nervous giggle that, inevitably, seems more the actor's than the character's. She plays a mysterious and undisclosed woman, but Parisse has yet to find ways to reveal her own insights into Holly's entrapped life. Both actors appear to enjoy one another's company, but the chemistry between them, spoken of at length by their characters, never gets past the stage.
Of the other cast members, Patricia Conolly brings warmth and humanity to an otherwise cynical and disenchanted doctor's wife. Jennifer Van Dyck, as a recently divorced woman, embraces anger to a degree that implies a past never hinted at elsewhere in the play or in the character's rather limited stage life. Francois Giroday is saddled with the hopeless role of the young girl's sometime lover. Soon after he appears, he delivers a monologue about his past. The writing, both in concept and execution, defies credibility. Mr. Giroday does not triumph.
The current offerings at BTF are not encouraging, though I know these are but two of the season's offerings. I look forward to the upcoming premiere of Pilgrim Papers, as much for the excitement of discovering a new play as for the hope that this challenge will add vigor and energy to what has, with these two plays, been drab and dispiriting.