By Sarah Downs
Sea Level Rise: A Dystopian Comedy, by playwright and climate change activist Henry Feldman is the first entrant in the Broadway Bound Festival to address climate change. An issue that requires our urgent attention, climate change is neither a political talking point nor a theory for discussion. It is a fact, and a terrifying one. Every tiny increase in the Earth’s temperature melts larger and larger swaths of arctic ice, flooding our oceans and laying waste to animal habitats. The increase in ocean depth in turn wreaks havoc with the weather. As coastlines sink further underwater we face serious consequences for our crimes against the ecosystem. Every gas guzzling SUV, every plastic water bottle, every factory belching particulates into the sky puts one more nail in our collective coffin. Is this the legacy we want to leave our children? Aren’t reality television and the Trump Administration bad enough?
In an attempt to bring this very serious subject to people in a context they will find less threatening, Sea Level Rise has been written as a comedy — a clunky, ill conceived, poorly directed comedy. This production has all the earmarks of community theatre, from amateurish line readings to awkward set changes to terrified pauses when someone forgets a line. Everyone forgets a line sometime. The profession lies in how you manage it. Acting 101: learn how to punt.
Set in South Florida in the near future, the play focuses on the very real predicament of people who live too close to the coast. Their homes are quickly becoming uninhabitable, but they have nowhere to go and no money to take them there. They are literally, figuratively and financially under water. The plot is too ridiculous to merit elucidation here. Suffice to say that circumstances bring a septic tank and a motley collection of characters together to stand in a line across the stage and dutifully speak lines. They mime drinking from glasses. Some shouting happens. An epiphany occurs.
The central character is Beth (Mindy Cassle) a climate scientist passionate about her subject. A wacked-out Cassandra begging for our attention, she lives on the edge of sanity, or sobriety at least, as she alternates between exasperatedly trying to get her point across and drinking (well, miming the act of drinking) every drop of alcohol in sight. Cassle gets some good zingers in as she effectively conveys valuable factual information about the how and why of climate change. She displays better comedic timing than the other actors. Alas, that is a very low bar.
I honestly don’t know what the playwright was thinking when he wrote this play, but even worse, I cannot figure out what the director was thinking. The performance lacks energy, through line, cohesion, relationships, humor, texture, literally anything that resembles actual theater. The best scene takes place at the end of the show when the two older men Hank (Victor Barranca) and Jose (William Shuman) spend a quiet moment alone. They manage to communicate, bringing to life a fleeting sincerity and depth entirely missing from the rest of the piece. If I were Henry Feldman I’d throw out the script and rewrite it starting backward from this final scene.
Sea Level Rise, by Henry Feldman, directed by Ted Thompson; with Victor Barranca, Bill Barry, Mindy Cassle, Ria Nez, William Shuman, Rebecca Smith, John Torres. Jen Fok, lighting design; Eric Braunstein, sound design; Gary VanderPuten, set design.
Presented by the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, at Theater Row (410 West 42nd St.) Run Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.