The Beachcombers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Beachcombers 

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Saratoga Company

at Blind Parrot

Playwright Craig Carlisle drops us into the middle of a potentially volatile situation in The Beachcombers, a new play being given its premiere production by the Saratoga Company. Waite (Carlisle) and Manny (Jay Woolston), brothers fiercely committed to each other, share a dilapidated Indiana beachside house they've inherited from their mother. Waite's fiancee, Lola (Libby Michaels), lives with them; and Manny, either out of jealousy or pure perverse enjoyment, sets out to break up their relationship and seduce Lola, all the while demanding a pledge of eternal loyalty from his brother.

To wreak his havoc, Manny encourages Waite's obsession with beachcombing, which keeps him walking up and down the beach zealously at all hours of the day. Manny uses the time when Waite's gone either to make moves on Lola or to dream up fictions implicating her in an affair. Manny himself adopts a perfectly innocent pose, planting such careful lies that he seems simply the unfortunate bearer of bad news. It's Othello, Iago, and Desdemona in the Indiana dunes.

But unfortunately Carlisle does not exploit this inherently dramatic situation. Rather than develop his characters or dramatize their relationships, he seems to expect his audience to just buy into them and their situation. It's almost as if the first scene, the one that establishes the characters, were missing. For much of the play, I felt I was trying to catch up.

These people spend so much time declaring their intentions and so little acting on them that the characters seem inauthentic. Carlisle doesn't create situations that will reveal his characters' personalities; instead, they just talk continually about who they are. Waite and Lola talk a lot about how much they're in love, and roll around on the floor in recurrent surges of gleeful libido, but no specific emotional connection makes their relationship seem worth our interest for an hour. Though the movie-star formula works in Hollywood movies--witness the commercial success of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost--it leaves an audience in the live theater feeling cheated.

Carlisle's picture is certainly familiar, with its average people, and "real," with its naturalistic setting and dialogue; but it lacks idiosyncratic detail. Waite and Lola are just "the lovers," as Manny and Waite are just "the brothers." I was never certain why Manny and Waite needed each other so desperately, so their pledge of loyalty is thin and unmotivated. Even Waite's obsession with beachcombing seems hollow, despite Carlisle's attempts to use that obsession metaphorically--to show the human need to search, however futilely, for something of value. This metaphor isn't sufficiently grounded in Waite's psychology. And Waite never discovers anything of value, admitting that the tie clip he once found was his own anyway. Excited by the prospect of selling found bottle caps for a penny a pound, he comes across finally as something of a dope.

This production's one great asset is Michaels. Her skillful performance as Lola rides a wave of emotion--tempered by Carlisle's half-formed script--that pitches and flows from moment to moment. Her Lola is fully present and deeply felt; Michaels gives her a humanness lacking in the character as written. This actress always seems to have several things going on in her head at once; several conflicting emotions are betrayed by her voice and body language while her face remains almost neutral. Her choices are constantly surprising--she doesn't telegraph her motivations but seems to keep them as jealously hidden from her fellow actors as from the audience. She is wholly responsive to the dramatic situation and to the other actors, following the scene's impulse rather than inventing one. If at times her performance seems restrained, it may be simply because her fellow actors don't give her enough to work with.

Carlisle and Woolston remain frustratingly static throughout: Carlisle acts on a scale that's too grandiose for this production, and Woolston remains stiff and inflexible. They seem to act at each other rather than with each other, unable to let themselves be affected by the dramatic moment.

Traci Burwitz gives Carlisle's script a clear if rather sluggish staging. Intelligently, she does little to "interpret" the play, generously allowing this new script to live or die on its own merits. But Burwitz could have tried for more committed performances from Woolston and Carlisle, since as Michaels's performance demonstrates, terrific acting can captivate an audience regardless of the material. The Saratoga Company's production of this curiously incomplete play is so tepidly staged that it carries little weight.


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