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A CurtainUp Review
Outward Bound

During the last few weeks things have happened to me-- and to all of us -- which need explaining--exploring-- if they have happened. . .So that we may draw up a clean balance sheet.---Lingley, who, ever the businessman, has called a meeting to deal with what he perceives as a nightmare from which he and his fellow passengers can wake up if the right business strategy is applied.

Joe Delafield, Katherine Saxe, Gareth Smith
(Photo: Theresa Squire)
Nowadays the term outward bound is associated with people banding together for endurance and character building holidays. The characters in Sutton Vane's 1923 play, Outward Bound, which the Keen Company has fished out of that pond stocked with theatrical rarities, a group of disparate people are bound for quite a different sort of adventure. Somehow for reasons none of them can explain, they are on a small ocean liner headed for a destination which, before you can say "ship ahoy" reveals itself not to be of their choosing.

This pre-Rod Serling twilight zone drama posits a lot of timeless questions about life and death. What makes a life well-lived or wasted? What happens when we die? Is there an after life and is there a grace period that allows some of us to complete unfinished earthly business? Vane's little troupe of men and women represent a fair share of still common human foibles. However, interesting as it may be to watch their facades unravel, the comfortably appointed but strangely underpopulated ocean liner isn't quite eerie enough to keep us on the edge of our seats during this heaven or hellbound two hours. Maybe if Alfred Lunt and Leslie Howard, both of whom were in the 1924 Broadway production, or Laurette Taylor who appeared in the 1938 revival, could have been resurrected along with the script, this revival would be theatrical heaven for nostalgia devotees. As it is the drama holds up better on the page than the stage, at least as now directed by Robert Kalfin who tries too hard to be at once funny and poignant and consequently fall short on both counts.

Mr. Kalfin has clearly done his homework. He and set designer Nathan Heverin have followed the text's very detailed instructions for creating the small ocean liner's bar and smoking room, complete with a railing facing the ocean visible outside one of its three exits. Theresa Squire's outfits, especially for Laura Esterman's Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, could have walked off the pages of my collection of The Ladies World magazines circa the early 1920s. What's missing is the spooky netherworld atmosphere beneath the surface niceties.

The push for broad humor over poignancy and eerieness is most immediately and obviously evident in Ms. Esterman's overly hammy portrayal of a snobbish society woman with a past that will come undone before the ship reaches its harbor. Michael Pemberton is somewhat less self-indulgent in playing her male counterpart -- a man puffed up by his successful tycoon persona. The director's tilting the ship towards laughs at the expense of darkness and emotion is capped with the second act appearance of the character referred to as The Examiner, played by Drew Eliot as an ersatz Wizard of Oz with a clerical collar.

Clayton Dean Smith deals quite satisfactorily with the pastor who, now that he's literally and symbolically in the same boat as his doomed shipmates can only deal with his own landing at the unidentified harbor. His Reverend Duke is one of the play's most rounded and sympathetic character and the one who gets some of the best lines.

Gareth Saxe as Tom Prior, the young man who has leaned too heavily on alcohol as a crutch to see him through life, also refrains from over-indulging in histrionics (though the part seems to call for a more roguish persona). Susan Pellegrino ably handles the Cockney accent of the former charwoman Mrs. Midget who in a less fantastical situation would have little contact with the otherwise upper class characters -- though her own back story gives her the sort of secret connection especially popular in plays during the twentieth century's first three or four decades.

As in Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby, Kathleen Early is half of a mysterious young couple. But while she gets to keep her stylish clothes on here, neither she or her young husband (Joe Delafield) manage to be ethereal enough to make their separateness from the rest of this ship of fools especially convincing or suspenseful.

Wilbur Edwin Henry as Scrubby, the only person who knows where the ship is bound and its only visible employee, is appropriately soft spoken and patient. However, understatement no more fully conveys the needed twilight zone aura than the more impassioned performances.

The play has an interesting history. Sutton Vane, followed in his father's footsteps as a writer after being invalided out of the British army as a shellshock victim during World War I. The humungous casualties of that war left him, like many of his countrymen, more than usually concerned with questions relating to the meaning of life and questions relating to the possibilities of an after life and the existence of heaven and hell and so, after two "conventional" plays, the surreal Outward Bound. The treatment of this subject proved too offbeat for London producers and so Vane vanity produced it which eventually led to its becoming a hit in London and on Broadway. A movie version (with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Leslie Howard reprising his stage role) undoubtedly influenced other sci-fi writers.

Carl Forsman is to be admired for making Outward Bound part of his company's mission to breathe new life into plays that were once risky but now risk being dated. Co-producer Joseph Harrow and director Robert Kalfin are apparently proud enough of their efforts to include their pictures in the program alongside the cast photo gallery. Too bad their confidence isn't reflected in a truly smooth-sailing theatrical voyage.

Outward Bound
Written by Sutton Vane
Directed by Robert Kalfin
Cast (in order of appearance): Wilbur Edwin Henry (Scrubby), Kathleen Early (Ann), Joe Delafield (Henry), Gareth Saxe (Tom Prior), Laura Esterman (Mrs. Cliveden-Banks), Clayton Dean Smith (Rev. Duke), Susan Pellegrino (Mrs. Midget), Micahel Pemberton (Mr. Lingley), Drew Elliot (Rev. Thompson)
Set Design: Nathan Heverin Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Samuel Doerr
Running time: 2 hrs and 15 minutes, includes an intermission.
Keen Company at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street (7th/8th Avenues) 212-868-4444
From 4/12/05 to 5/08/05.
Tues through Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm Seating: General Admission/Open Seating. Tickets: $19 TDF Vouchers Accepted
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 15th press performance
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