Los Angeles Theater Review: A DELICATE SHIP (Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on January 21, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


If you lose your way trying to navigate the enigmatic journey Anna Ziegler wants to take us in her well-written but thematically dense A Delicate Ship, keep your eye on Josh Zuckerman – it’ll be impossible not to – because he has found the human trajectory that Nate, one of the three-hander’s three protagonists, is on and has wormed his way into the character with such determined intricacy that not only will you find it impossible to separate the actor from the man, but you are almost certain to identify with his desperation and loss, despite Nate’s brash, borderline personality.

That takes some doing because the goings on are intentionally ambiguous; as with most modern playwrights, more thought is put into deconstruction than the story that’s being deconstructed. A newly attached couple, millennials Sarah, a social worker, and Sam, a paralegal and amateur balladeer, enjoy a romantic Christmas Eve at her apartment, when Nate, her best friend since childhood, shows up and barges in with the intention, we guess, to finally declare his love for Sarah (which Sam did to Sarah on their third date). It’s all innocent enough until wine is poured, pot is smoked, and Nate becomes a cock-of-the-walk instigator, and Sarah does not ask him to leave.

But look at Nick Santiago’s beautiful video design, and the horrible weather suddenly stops, and we see a sparkling view of the Manhattan skyline from, I guess, Brooklyn. As the play progresses, the audience is left to piece together whether Sarah lives there in the present, or is recalling this Christmas Eve from years ago. It’s very possible that analyzers will have a blast trying to assemble this combination puzzle- and memory-play, but it gets enervating to sit there wondering why many things don’t add up (for example, I had trouble buying Sarah’s attachment to Nate when he is so caustic), and I found myself checking out.

Then, among some crackling, crunchy dialogue, comes interstitial poetry, as from Nate, describing what his relationship with Sarah could be like (it also explains the play’s title): “[We can] traverse the endless series of days like explorers in a ship made of time itself, its delicate sails moving easily through the churning water.” Yes, the dialogue and the character’s insights frequently have a drop of elegance about them, but Ziegler’s principal state of affairs is painfully feeble, so it doesn’t support the exquisite lines. For A Delicate Ship to excite us, there should be a feeling that peril is right around the corner. We need to sense that Nate’s intrusion will, hypothetically at least, alter these lives dramatically — which it turns out, it might (maybe – remember, everything may not be what it seems).

Zuckerman, with this wild, indescribable, distinctive, magnetic internal machinery, adds much of the tension not supplied by the script, as Ziegler is forever interrupting any impetus by adding first-person monologues directed at us. And even Zuckerman can’t help when Nate — in a heightened doped-up state — persuades the others to play a guessing game, because it feels very Boys in the Band, but, again, without the drama.

This isn’t to say that Zuckerman’s co-stars aren’t terrific in Road Theatre’s handsome production, directed by Andre Barron; Paris Perrault secures Sarah’s sadness and Philip Orazio captures Sam’s sweetness. It’s just that I found myself wishing for Albee and Pinter’s capabilities for grappling with the complexities of truth and illusion.

You wouldn’t know it from watching A Delicate Ship, but playwright Anna Zeigler is one of the hottest new dramatists around — or should I say “fecund”? This is my third visit with her work, and in each she loves to deconstruct a small incident, turning it into a one-act play that is long on prose and short on drama with decidedly mixed results. The most successful was Actually (2016 at the Geffen), a shrewd dual-character study around date rape. Another Way Home (2012, Magic Theatre) concerns parents dealing with a difficult son, but I had trouble dealing with the fourth-wall breaking narration (that very few playwrights have mastered since John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation) and the Thornton Wilder-esque commentaries that characters spout in lieu of a strong story. A Delicate Ship has elements of both.

Characters stepping out of current time is this fertile writer’s modus operandi: It happened in The Last Match (2016, The Old Globe) and the biographical play, Boy [2016], which just opened in Chicago last Wednesday. Then there’s her other biographical play, Photograph 51 (2010), which cast a spotlight on Ziegler when Nicole Kidman took it to the West End in 2015. It’s amazing how often Ziegler’s work is produced: Yes, she’s a phenomenal writer with an ear for whizzing, poetic, humorous dialogue, but she has yet to prove herself to be a great playwright.

photos by Brian M. Cole

A Delicate Ship
The Road Theatre Company
Road Theatre at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony
10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 11, 2018 EXTENDED to March 24, 2018
for tickets, call 818.761.8838 or visit Road Theatre

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