A group of disparate personalities haphazardly assembled on a mysterious ocean liner that's headed for an unknown destination, with only one crewman aboard: Is this a play or an episode of The Twilight Zone?
As it happens, it's the former, though Sutton Vane's 1923 play Outward Bound could just as easily have been devised by Rod Serling for his iconic television series. The Keen Company's new production of the play at Urban Stages proves that Vane knew, just as Serling did, that the deconstruction of humanity's foibles and eccentricities is easier for audiences to take when they have a bit of mystery to hang onto. So he assembled seven people of different ages, classes, and attitudes to populate the ship (an eighth, the steward, is also present), while leaving one question hanging over their heads: Why are they all there?
Vane, like Serling, also knew that mystery only takes you so far, and that real subjects that concern real people will take you farther, and will ultimately be more satisfying. By the end of the first of the show's three acts, the audience knows the answer to Vane's question, which frees them up to consider the weightier issues the playwright really intended to tackle. And, without hyperbole, they really are matters of life and death.; to Vane, how one faces living is as important as how one faces dying.
Nearly every character here must deal with both: Two young lovers, Ann and Henry (Kathleen Early and Joe Delafield), are afraid a shameful secret will separate them forever; the class-conscious Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Laura Esterman) can't bear to be in the same room as either the charwoman Mrs. Midget (Susan Pellegrino) or the clergyman Reverend Duke (Clayton Dean Smith); Mr. Lingley (Michael Pemberton), a hard-hearted businessman, lets nothing and no one stand in his way; and a gadabout named Tom Prior (Gareth Saxes) drowns most of his troubles in alcohol.
Why these people are on the ship together, and what roles the steward Scrubby (Wilbur Edwin Henry) and late-arriving visitor Reverend Thompson (Drew Eliot) play, won't be revealed here. Not that it matters: What follows the revelation is invariably more interesting than what precedes it, and the passengers' attempts to cope with difficult truths - about what they've done, what they haven't done, and what they might still be able to do - make for consistently engaging drama up through the suspenseful final curtain.
Director Robert Kalfin only once has trouble maintaining consistency of tone: At the beginning of the third act (though this production is played with only one intermission), things briefly threaten to devolve into pure farce. It doesn't help that Vane's writing for this scene, set after all the characters learn the truth about their situation, is heavily comic in a way that little else in the play is, but though Kalfin otherwise successfully balances the breezier and serious parts of the show, here he temporarily loses control of the script and his actors.
He and his creative team make few other missteps in this well-paced and nicely appointed production: Nathan Heverin's set is an eye-catching, peach-and-rose Art Deco-like rendering of a ship's lounge nicely lit by Josh Bradford's lights, and Theresa Squires's costumes attractively span the spectrum of English society, from riches to rags. Samuel Doerr's sound, which plays an increasingly vital role as the evening progresses, is always just right.
So are most of the performances. Only Esterman pushes too hard; she gets all her laughs, but a gentler take might better suit the backstabbing nature of a character who's destined to end up with a knife between her own shoulder blades. Saxe provides a strong dramatic anchor as the moral but conflicted (and observant) Tom; Pemberton is appropriately brusque as Lingley; Smith brings a fine reserved quality to Reverend Duke; Pellegrino is a delight as the good-hearted Cockney lady with a secret of her own; and Henry and Eliot bring light but firm authority to their roles.
Delafield and Early make the strongest impressions: They have the most challenging roles as young people who think they have it all figured out, but truly understand very little. They must therefore communicate Vane's most insistent message, about valuing life and not taking it for granted even in the harshest of circumstances. So much of Outward Bound is wrapped up in this idea that weaker performances here could sink the play's true meaning: With Delafield and Early, it floats effortlessly.
Because of them, you realize how that message feels as relevant now as it must have when the play first premiered. Outward Bound, like The Twilight Zone, stands as a strong reminder that when strong ideas are couched in strong stories, both will always be highly worthy of re-examination.