By Ann Firestone Ungar
Half Moon Bay, a drama by John Jiler, isn’t about a town in California or a resort in the Caribbean. It’s an expectant mother’s wish. She says to her husband, “…let’s rest the night here in half moon bay. You curl your body around me, our little thing is curled up inside of me, and we dream the night away.” And together they create the shape and mystery of a half moon, a deeply romantic notion. This mother-to-be, Pam (Jean Goto), however, is also a major achiever, a landscape gardener on the grand scale, planning an environmentally perfect residential Manhattan skyscraper with her award-winning architect husband, Richie (Ben Gougeon). She’s an attractive, enthusiastic, loving wife; he’s an attractive, enthusiastic rover. And therein lies the engine of this taut and engrossing play.
Richie’s building is named Skylark. Those jazz enthusiasts among us will leap immediately to the deeply romantic standard Skylark, music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. I bring these lyrics to your attention because they succinctly speak the dynamic of Richie’s character which drags Pam’s life into chaos and shatters their marriage for a long time.
“Skylark, have you anything to say to me?
Won’t you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone’s waiting to be kissed?
Have you seen a valley green with spring
Where my heart can go a journeying
Over the shadows and the rain
To a blossom covered lane?
And in your lonely flight
Haven’t you heard the music in the night?
Faint as a will o’ the wisp
Crazy as a loon
Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.
I don’t know if you can find these things
But my heart is riding on your wings
So if you see them anywhere
Won’t you lead me there?
Won’t you lead me there?
In the plot of the play, on the night that Richie and Pam announce their engagement to their best friend Tom (Brennan Taylor), they briefly meet a waitress (Ivette Dumeng) in a restaurant. For Richie, from that moment on, she becomes an object of pursuit. This waitress, Alicia, appears at first to be shy and reticent, innocent and sensual, immersed in mystery, in love with the light of the moon, with no memory of her past. As the story develops we learn that she’s homeless, medicated, and had a baby which the government removed from her home because of her incompetence as a mother. She’s childlike, incapable of a complex adult relationship, and that strongly appeals to Richie whose wife is intellectually sophisticated and fully communicative.
Tom, a lawyer, tries at first to help Richie out of this infatuation. At his own time and expense he finds Alicia’s baby and resettles her in Pennsylvania. Tom hopes this will resolve Richie’s veiling idea that he’s interested in her because he wants to help her to a better life. Tom’s loyalty to that man is strongly tested. He’s a good person who would also like to be more than just a good friend to Pam, whom he admires and wants.
At the apex of the story Richie has moved to Pennsylvania, has built a six-room “cottage” in a meadow for Alicia, and plans to make babies with her, bathe them in a stream and dry them by the fire. What happens in reality, however, is that when he moves Alicia’s belongings and his into the cottage, she trashes the place and disappears. He looks for her for months, finding her in a diner in the Midwest. She doesn’t remember him for a long while, but then she seems to, saying, “I remember you now. I like you.”
Richie returns to Pam. She slaps him, but takes him back. As Tom, who has been narrating the play, tells us, “And before too long, before the naked eye, he was just another New York Dad.”
Tom also reminds us that “Richie is not some charming, romantic figure smoking on a verandah. He’s a wild, dangerous beast. And even though he’s now been tamed, long after the rest of us have gone to sleep, he will pace to the edge of his cage and stare up at the sky with cold dull eyes.”
Half Moon Bay is quick and concise and makes its point with almost no hammering. It’s cleanly directed by Margarett Perry, and very well acted by the entire company. I’ve previously seen Ms. Dumeng’s work in Miss Julie and Kristina presented by The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre. She was strong and stunning in those roles. Here, she’s demure, careful and innocent, even as she portrays again the very dangerous dionysian role. Mr. Taylor as Tom is charming and brings a nice physicality to his role. Mr. Gougeon and Ms. Goto bring vibrant and appropriate seriousness to theirs.
This play deserves future productions, and I’m confident it will find its way into the American repertory. It’s very much a story about commitment and temptation, ambition for the complex, ambition for the simple, and reaching for the moon, however you define that.
HALF MOON BAY – written by John Jiler and directed by Margarett Perry
WITH: Ben Gougeon (Richie), Ivette Dumeng (Alicia), Jean Goto (Pam) and Brennan Taylor (Tom)
Debbi Hobson (costume design), Wilburn Bonnell (lighting design), Andy Evan Cohen (sound design), Kyu Shin (set design), presented by Nylon Fusion Theatre Company in residence at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, New York, NY. Box Office: 347-524-0514, www.nylonfusion.org. Through October 25, 2015; check with the box office for precise schedule of performances. Running time: 90 minutes