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A CurtainUp Review
Sea of Tranquility

When someone says to you life's impossible? . . .They need a solution. I don't have one. There isn't one. You can't solve existence. Existence --solves you.--- Ben
Dylan Baker
Dylan Baker (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
I'm usually hesitant to see two plays in one day. Yet, last Saturday I risked sensual overload by scheduling two new plays by playwrights with reputations for bringing a distinctive voice to the American experience. My matinee booking took me to the Vineyard to see Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child. There was just enough time for a dinner spent pondering this dark tragi-comedy enigmatic ending, before heading to the Atlantic Theater to see Howard Korder's Sea of Tranquility, another funny-sad look at troubled Americans.

As in Beautiful Child. the pivotal characters in Sea of Tranquility are a married couple. Nicky Silver's Harry and Nan are long married and likely to stay put in Connecticut. Korder's Ben and Nessa Green also hail from Connecticut. Though married only three years they also have problems which they try to leave behind when they migrate to Sante Fe, New Mexico.

For Korder, whose credits include a string of well-received stage and television productions, Sea of Tranquility is his first new production in this city in a dozen years. Pulitzer Prize nominated Boys' Life had its world premiere at Lincoln Center in 1988 and Search and Destroy opened at the Circle in the Square after winning the Los Angeles Theater Critics award and was also made into a film.

The new play's title proves to be ironic in that the brave new horizons of places like the booming Southwest are far less tranquil than they would seem. Korder's Sante Fe overflows with more than a dozen characters trying to stay afloat in an untranquil sea and almost as many issues as native arts and crafts for sale along the Canyon Road: Lack of communication's effect on a marriage, misguided environmental practices, gentrification that displaces people and cultural scavengers who appropriate their histories, disaffection of modern youths, the abuses practiced by religious cults, the fallout of false and failed ambition, the effectiveness of psychotherapy.

The play's over-abundance of themes unfold in the office where Ben (Dylan Baker) now plies his family counseling trade and in the living room of the old adobe house he shares with his wife Nessa (Patricia Kalember), a writer who popularizes cultural subjects. Since one of Ben's patients, a Hispanic named Gilbert (Matthew Saldivar), is incarcerated for murder, Santo Loquasto has created a revolving set to accommodate the occasional prison visit.

Korder writes good, often wickedly funny dialogue but he's not immune to falling prey to the politician's bent for long-windedness-- most egregiously so in the inexcusably long monologue with which he saddles Heidi Arbuster's character, a runaway from a religious cult. He also tends towards characters who are more types than flesh and blood people, the wife in this story being a prime example.

Director Neil Pepe has mounted the play with what by today's standard amounts to an oversized cast -- eleven actors, three of whom play double parts, which ups the ante of characters to fourteen. This is a refreshing change from the more usual cost-conscious one to four actor and extensive doubling norm. I therefore feel somewhat like a curmudgeon when I say that stage seems overpopulated with minor characters even though the actors are all fine. Todd Weeks stands out as Nessa's maniacal screw-up brother having one of his "total personality breakdowns" after being fired from his Hollywood sitcom gig. Atlantic Theater regular Jordan Large deserves double commendation, for his portrayal of a cynical Scientology lawyer and as a hilarious archeologist and partner in Nessa's latest project as "popularizer", a book cannibalism among Native American tribes.

Kay Voyce's witty costumes make it fun to watch the parade of troubled patients and unwanted visitors. However, everything is essentially geared around Ben's having to deal with his past and present. The past that even Nessa doesn't know about involves an affair with a suicidal patient that cost him his medical license. His present tension provokers include another kind of buried problem, this one the garbage dumped beneath his house that is probably causing Nessa's mysterious illness. It all leads to a physician heal thyself crisis of faith in his ability to help others or what Nessa disdainfully calls his "priestly rounds."

In the final analysis Sea of Tranquility's claim to depth and meaning rests with Ben. Fortunately, Dylan Baker plays him with empathy arousing tension and warmth. Unlike the two squabbling Lesbians (Betsy Ayden and Lizbeth Mackay) who, upon hearing about his past from the mother (a second amusing turn for Mackay) of the cult runaway, I'd be willing to trust Baker's Ben to be a good and caring listener if I needed "the talking cure " to help me deal with a problem.

Search and Destroy (LA)
Boy's Life

Sea of Tranquility
Written by Howard Korder
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Dylan Baker (Ben), Patricia Kalember (Nessa), Betsy Aidem (Phyllis), Heidi Armbruster (Astarte), Liz Elkins (Kat), Jason Fuchs (Josh), Jordan Lage (Barry/Johannsen), Lizbeth Mackay (Adele/Ashley), Matthew Saldívar (Gilbert/Roman), Rafael Sardina (Milton) and Todd Weeks (Randy).
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Original Music: David Yazbek
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 2 hours plus intermission
AtlanticTheater, 336 West 20th Street ( 8th/9th Avenues) , 212-239-6200 or
2/04/04 to 3/28/04; opening 2/25/04.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM with matinees on Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Tickets: $45.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 21st press performance

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