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Review: Tina Howe’s New Englanders Thrash in the Shallows of ‘Singing Beach’


From left, Naren Weiss, Tuck Milligan, Elodie Lucinda Morss (standing), Devin Haqq (foreground), John P. Keller and Erin Beirnard in Tina Howe’s “Singing Beach.”

Joel Weber

Tina Howe’s “Singing Beach,” produced by Theater 167 at Here, needs a lifeguard. While it returns to themes and situations she has movingly explored in other works, this sometimes absurdist play about a family in crisis splashes and thrashes under Ari Laura Kreith’s direction. It goes under almost from the get-go.

As the play opens, Merrie (Erin Beirnard), a novelist, has reluctantly agreed to move her father, the poet Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan), into an assisted-living facility. As Merrie and her family pack away his things, a Category 4 hurricane looms. All is chaos — domestic, meteorological — so Merrie’s daughter, 10-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss), retreats into reverie. Inspired by stories of the ocean liners her grandparents once traveled on, she whittles a little wooden boat, the S.S. Pegasus, and constructs an elaborate daydream in which she and her grandfather escape to a life of onboard ice skating, dinner at the captain’s table and no known Norovirus outbreaks. Ah, fantasy.

Ms. Howe has paddled in these waters before. In her lyrical and mournful 1997 play, “Pride’s Crossing,” Singing Beach makes a cameo as the locale for a proposed moonlit swim. And in the 1986 romantic comedy “Coastal Disturbances,” an older couple remember lugging a beach umbrella there. For Ms. Howe, the ocean waters promise release, a chance for her buttoned-up New England characters to loose themselves from their lives, if only for the length of a summer plunge.

Here, the sea again offers a reprieve, but neither the make-believe scenes aboard the S.S. Pegasus nor the more realistic ones set on the Massachusetts shore feels especially credible. Ms. Kreith doesn’t do much to distinguish them tonally and the actors, most of whom play double roles, shift between them by fussing with their accessories. Some of the performances feel tentative, almost apologetic, while others feel overly emphatic, suggesting that the actors may not believe in these worlds either.

Part of that blame lies with Ms. Howe’s script, which draws on memories of her father. While the play is ostensibly set in the near future, the characters are mired in the past, quoting the Romantic poets and singing a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers. These characters don’t make much sense. Piper’s bratty 12-year-old brother, Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill), says that the assisted-living facility, Twelve Trees, “sounds more like a second-rate merlot,” and quotes Ophelia’s mad scene when his grandfather dodders. Maybe in the future prepubescent bullies are a lot more erudite?

Elsewhere, the exposition is clumsy (“He’s had two strokes since your mother died last year … two!”) and the logic unsound. Worse still are the staging fumbles, as when a knife is bloodied long before it cuts anyone.

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