Friday, October 16, 2009

Coastal Disturbances - by Tina Howe

Produced at Second Stage in 1986 and then re-opened in 1987. How to begin to describe? The play is set on a private beach in Massachusetts during the last two weeks of August. Those two choices dictate much of the play - the closing of a season, the cold days coming in, the privilege of the beach members. The play is organized into two acts - five scenes in each, spread out through the two week period.

It opens with the two lovers of the play meeting - Holly, a young photographer having a nervous breakdown of sorts and Leo, a hero-like dream boat in the tradition of Tennessee William's young men - a surplus of energy, sex oozing from him. Leo's been hired as a lifeguard after a young boy drowned, he's immediately effected by Holly and their relationship forms the spine of the play. Surrounding that is a dear older couple enjoying their annual seaside holiday, two mothers and their children (7 & 8), and a second act visitor - Andre Sor.

The couple and the families provide the landscape feeling of the play, an accumulation of conversations and actions that ebb and flow throughout. The children are beasts, constantly fighting and harassing Leo - and creating moments where one of the mother's freaks out and shakes her son - stopping the action dead. The roles of the children are pretty great, precocious and central to the play, they must have found some remarkable kids to perform these parts - and it would pose a challenge to any production - that and the giant decomposing whale that appears for one scene in the second act.

But, the second act visitor. Only vaguely mentioned in the smallest detail by Holly as the source of her breakdown, he appears immediately after Leo and Holly spend the night together on the beach, and is exactly as she's described. He's the european, older, sophisticate to Leo's primal, virile immediacy. He wraps Holly around his finger only to explain that he'll have to leave for Europe soon and yes, her show he's promised her must be postponed yet again. He upsets Holly, casts a dark black mood over Leo - who was the bright light of the play, tells the tragic and slightly cliched story of his childhood in Brooklyn as a WW2 refugee, and disappears again. Light returns in the final scene with Leo succeeding in wresting Holly's contact information from her, helping the old couple set up their anniversary celebration and gazing happily at her address.

To me it was a satisfying read and I wish to I could see it in production. It's large cast may make that very unlikely, but reading it inspires me to apply to some MFA program in direction and take it on. I think it's the grace of over-lapping actions and conversations, the sense of a beach at the end of the summer and the ease that moments of imagination are embarked on - only to be interrupted by a child's scream or the arrival of an acquaintance. Also people are reduced to wild emotion on several occasions - laughter, attraction, despair, anger - that just flies out there and passes on as well. At many points Howe indicates the stage like a painting, fixing images in my mind.

Again, its a play that defies being 'about' something, has a large cast - including full-blown childrens roles, and I imagine it with high production values. So, considering now, where do these plays go now? Sneaky quiet ones that pack a lot in about the way we live in this world, but modestly keep that tamped down - as is appropriate for their characters and subject, is there room for that in the current theatre?

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