Body Politic Theatre

Three tons of sand were carted up a flight of stairs to provide Body Politic’s setting for Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances, a play that depicts late-summer visitors to a private Massachusetts beach. If they had put the same effort into breathing some life into the script, we’d have been spared a shallow, often stupid production. No, not stupid–dead in the water.

Howe seems to have created Disturbances out of snapshots she took from a better, fuller play. Appropriately her main character, Holly Dancer, is a photographer who specializes in nude self-portraits. Holly has left New York and a failing relationship with her gallery-owner boyfriend to return to her childhood haunt. “I love this beach,” she says. “It never changes.”

This summer it does. Holly meets Leo Hart, a lifeguard also on the rebound. Tumbling hard for this dreamy, awkward lady, Leo wastes no time telling her–with his paws. When Holly tries to photograph the beach, Leo in effect insists on entering the frame. To prevent her resistance, he symbolically buries her in sand. When Holly talks about the Indians who once peopled her beach or fantasizes about love among the dolphins, Leo drags her back to the present–the only tense it seems possible for them to share.

The other lovers on the beach help to set off this reluctant summer romance. An older couple, an amiable eye surgeon and his amateur-painter wife, contentedly celebrate yet another anniversary. Two very different mothers offer Holly cautionary lessons. The obviously named Faith, delighted to be pregnant after having adopted a child, revels in the continuity of life as she tells how her unborn daughter will come into the world with her own eggs inside her–like Russian wooden dolls nested inside each other, the last one filled with seeds. But Ariel Took–divorced, “dried up,” and suicidal–imagines she hates life and envies Holly her passionate lifeguard. Meanwhile Faith’s and Ariel’s bratty, busy children play together as if to show that the mothers’ polarities mean nothing to them.

Incongruously natty in a suit, the last beach arrival is Andre Sor, Holly’s pretentious art-dealer lover. Suffering from a sterility much like Ariel’s and cooing phonily, Andre tries to woo Holly by launching into an endless and unsolicited family history that, however poetic, can’t hide the fact that Holly is one more beautiful thing Andre intends to collect. Remembering his craftsman father, Andre pleads, “Innocence eludes me, but you and my father walk with the angels.” (Well, you’ve got to admit that, however it falls on its face as art, it’s a new line.)

All of which leaves Holly fearing that things are “falling apart.” She wavers between giving up her camera to live with Leo on his boat and pursuing an empty career with Andre. (Did anyone say “soaps”?) Holly inches to the edge of a decision–but, with an honesty worthy of her much better Painting Churches, Howe refuses to force her to a conclusion.

In the absence of a propulsive plot, individual moments matter a lot in this impressionistic play, a story full of hesitant and overlapping dialogue. That tentativeness should have warned director Pauline Brailsford not to force the play’s already bromide-barnacled feelings beyond their tiny range. Instead this pedestrian, feel-good staging comes at us DOA, its love story reduced to what looks like an extended Impulse perfume commercial minus the flowers. (First storyboard: Handsome Lifeguard Flips for Pretty Photog. Second: He Impetuously Pursues Her.) Jeff Bauer’s cloud projections have more personality than Brailsford’s generic nonensemble.

Too young for their parts, Bill McCallum and Mary MacDonald Kerr fail to convey the love hunger that should make Leo eager and Holly afraid to take a risk that’s as spiritual as it is sensual. Mistaking loud for sincere, McCallum coarsens Leo into a randy beach bum on the macho make. Playing Holly as if she has a tic douloureux, Kerr distractedly pouts her way through a part that demands at least a token vulnerability. With remarkable perversity, Brailsford insures that no annoying chemistry between the actors or intrusive spontaneity spoils the cliche mongering that Howe tries to pass off as love.

Mary Cooper plays Faith, the mother beatified by the child she carries, as if she were training for sainthood; any more ecstasy and Cooper would levitate. Maureen Gallagher as Ariel is trapped into the opposite of Faith’s transfiguration–she has the thankless role of a bad mother whose periods have stopped and who must thus consider suicide. (If a man had written Ariel, feminists would probably have howled.) Gallagher plays the anger well enough, but no actress should be saddled with Ariel’s unearned, last-minute redemption.

A born scene-stealer, Brendan Hutt is naturally hammy and hilarious as Ariel’s precocious but obnoxious son Winston; Hallie Goldblatt plays his mischievous playmate. Joan Spatafora and Patrick Billingsley are the so-cute-you-could-yawn elderly New Englanders who gather shells–and, apparently, accents–as they go. Sporting his own mongrel accent, James McCance tackles Andre, Howe’s preciously overwritten aesthete, a collection of florid lines that don’t pass muster as a character.

Dreary doings on a sand-filled but very empty stage.