Once upon a time, a lonely boy saves a mysterious girl from drowning. The mysterious girl—who insists she was dancing in the ocean outside the boy's home, not drowning—is dodgy, brash, and thankless, but she nonetheless endears herself to her lonesome host, inspiring in him a Christ-like solicitousness and concern for her well-being. They sleep together. Time passes. Despite the girl's sin-riddled past, full of sexual shadows and fog, the boy—lonely no more—sticks with her, feeding her hope and caring for her tattered soul and screwed-up head. She gets a job, goes to school, and gets pregnant.
Seascape With Sharks and Dancer Absurd Reality Theatre at Northwest Actors Studio, 1100 E. Pike St., 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com. $10–$12. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Ends April 21.
This is playwright Don Nigro's Seascape With Sharks and Dancer, a one-set, two-actor play that pries and digs and picks at the scabs of a love affair perpetually complicated—and perhaps doomed—by secrets and lies. Like the work of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, Nigro's play delves into the subterranean content that informs and imperils relationships, seeking to uncover the festering psychic wounds that drive two people to love and hate one another in equal measure. In other words, Seascape—directed here by Absurd Reality Theatre alum Maridee Slater—is about the bad baggage folks carry like a cross into their crippled couplings and uncouplings. Granted, the drowning device is a bit ham-fisted, but the play itself is admirably, sometimes shockingly, successful in what it sets out to do. There is a scrappy, ragged appeal to this fringe production, executed with the kind of energy and raw talent that tends to outshine our city's bigger, richer, more cautious theater companies.
Lindsay Erika Crain and Brandon Ryan give themselves completely to the rough-hewn give-and-take of Nigro's dialogue, which is painfully attuned to the sticky games of revelation and concealment people can play with each other. Crain is fantastic as Tracy, the world-weary orphan with a forked tongue and a dark past. She plays the role just right, part nymph and part demon, avoiding the temptation to overdo the Girl, Interrupted act. As the play progresses, she just becomes stronger, depicting Tracy's slow-burn disintegration with an edgy subtlety as immediate as it is haunting. Equally good is Ryan as the long-suffering, infinitely understanding Ben, the writer whose life is turned upside down and inside out by the appearance of this (to him) fascinatingly bent woman. In a performance that recalls a young Jack Lemmon (think The Apartment), Ryan makes the character into a soft-spoken minor Jesus, a sainted figure full of tics, hems and haws, and witty asides. As Tracy becomes more and more abusive, Ryan's Ben grows more understanding, refusing to take her bait (she calls him a "gold-plated shit on a stick" and, in a hilarious outburst, flings "Writer!" at him as though it were the world's most vicious epithet). Yet Ben is no fool; as Tracy's self-loathing compels her to sabotage her happiness, he plays a sort of wise waiting game, allowing her to unspool until she reaches the end of her rope. Unfortunately, that end leads to a kind of murder, both literal and metaphoric.
One of the most compelling aspects of Seascape—the engine that spins the action—is the way storytelling functions as both a salve to intimacy and its destroyer. Tracy is constantly pleading for Ben to tell her a story, though more often than not it is she who ends up spinning a tale. And it's in her self-concocted fables of swimming with sharks that one sees the way stories work a sort of shell game with the truth, using metaphor as a form of avoidance. In the straw men Tracy erects for Ben, her real self is incompletely hidden. Yet, as much as they conceal, the stories Ben and Tracy tell also show them slouching toward openness; incapable of stating bald fact, the two misfits give peeks at what lies beneath the appearance of everyday domestic reality. As much as it is an analysis of a fragile relationship, Nigro's play is about language—its uses and abuses, its petals and thorns. Seascape, hardly the static portrait its title implies, offers an avalanche of dialogue, and in its gush of words reveals some pretty hard truths about desire, doubt, and the connections people forge. It's hardly a perfect play—it's a bit slow to get moving, for one thing—but its very imperfection is like a serrated blade sawing through bone. One way or another, it's going to reach the marrow. You can't help but pay attention to that kind of violence.