By Tulis McCall
I am a big fan of Playwrights Realm. They are specific. They produce on or two plays a year and focus on the depth of their support to early-career (not necessarily young) writers. They call it the “Inch-wide/mile-deep approach.” Their taste is eclecftic. They think out of the box. So I was not surprised that Anna Ziegler’s new play A Delicate Ship was unusual in its concept and delivery. It was, however, also not quite believable.
Sarah (Miriam Silverman) and her relatively new beau Sam (Matt Dellapina) are celebrating in her Brooklyn apartment overlooking Manhattan. It is Christmas Eve. They are relaxing and luxuriating in their new love. The conversation is playful yet deep. Philosophical ideas are tossed into the air like tennis balls. These two people like talking as much as sex. Maybe more.
There is a knock on the door and Nate (Nick Westrate) appears. Pretty much from out of nowhere kind of appearance. Nate is Sarah’s oldest friend it seems. They grew up in the same building and share a lifetime of memories. They love each other dearly and desperately. What Sarah does not know, or has refused to see all these years, is that Nate is IN love with her. And tonight is the night he has chosen to tell her.
Nate is a walking compendium of memories about Sarah that she has forgotten. He is also a debate-team-styled-match for Sam, who doesn’t see the invisible razor that Nate has secreted away in his cheek. Nate chips away at Sam with one arm while wooing Sarah with the other. He reminds her of their cherished times spent together while Sam watches like an anxious parent at a soccer match.
The evening escalates as the two men vie for the prominent position with Sarah up on a pedestal as the grand prize. There is some dope smoked and a lot of wine consumed as the banter becomes edgier and Nate revs his mental motor. Eventually they play “the forehead game” where each writes the name of a person on a Sticky and pastes it to someone’s forehead, That person has to guess who they are. Nate writes Sarah’s name and sticks it on her forehead. When it is time for her to guess who she is Nate let’s loose a stream of verbiage that has been waiting years to be released.
The evening does not end well for anyone. But the question for me is how did the evening come to be? Why did Sarah let Nick stay? It is an odd confluence of events that was not grounded in a “because” – and that diminishes the believability of the story from the start. It is not enough for Sarah to simply say she cannot toss Nate out. And then do so minutes later.
The title of the play comes from a painting, Breughel’s Icarus, in which an entire world of people fail to notice Icarus plunging to his death into a small bay. Nate brings Sarah a poem by Auden about the painting:
and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The implication here is that it is Nate who is plunging to his demise and not only Sarah and Sam, but all of us are complicit in turning away. But the play’s lack of structure coupled with the conclusion that is no surprise deprives us of an opportunity to empathize with any of these characters. Nate enters as an unwelcome guest and is never able to stake a claim that hooks us. This is in spite of three elegant and nuanced performances by all three actors and some equally fine direction by Margot Bordelon.
The play ends with an incomprehensible epilogue, beautifully executed by Mr. Westrate, and then a lovely coda with Sam and Sarah. They walk a memory path together with Sarah speaking of her children. How cani I have children when I am still a child? Answer: You have them and then you grow up. Perhaps this was what Ms. Ziegler was trying to say all along.
The Playwrights Realm presents “A Delicate Ship” By Anna Ziegler; Directed by Margot Bordelon
WITH Matt Dellapina (Sam), Miriam Silverman (Sarah) and Nick Westrate (Nate) www.playwrightsrealm.org