The meaning of the title of Rebecca Gilman's new play, Blue Surge, is explained at the beginning of the second act as one character's misinterpretation of the title of the Duke Ellington song "Blue Serge." He could feel a "surge of blueness" emerging from the song, he tells us. "Like a sadness."
Audiences venturing to the Public Theater to see Blue Surge will have long understood that interpretation as being equally important to this play. Blue Surge is in almost no way a happy play. It's about sad, angry people living their sad angry lives the only way they know how, if not necessarily the best way.
Regardless, Gilman's play is energized and highly compelling. She has constructed a taut five character drama focusing on two policemen (Joe Murphy and Steve Key), the two hookers masquerading as massage therapists (Rachel Miner and Colleen Werthmann) with whom they become entangled, and the odd woman out (Amy Landecker, playing the girlfriend of Murphy's character).
But the play is really about romantic involvement only tangentially. Curt (Murphy) has always been poor while Beth (Landecker) comes from money but chooses to live as an impoverished artist. After a failed raid on the massage parlor where Sandy (Miner) and Heather (Werthmann) both work, Curt becomes enamored of Sandy and the unfortunate soul he sees as being trapped in an unwitting life of prostitution.
Blue Surge, then, becomes a story about class struggle, about the perhaps misguided spiritual or moral involvement that can exist between people of differing social standing. Its characters are all enacting their own twisted versions of Pygmalion, constantly trying to change each other without being aware of how they themselves may be changing for the better, or the worse.
Director Robert Falls balances the script's unforgiving quality with a lean but effective production, designed by Walt Spangler and lit by Michael Philippi, that focuses intently on the actors. The performers, luckily, do not disappoint. Murphy and Landecker exhibit strong chemistry in their scenes together, brilliantly illustrating the mostly unspoken class conflict that has driven their relationship. Werthmann and Key generally give broader, more comic performances.
But it's Miner (from Falls's Chicago production of the show last summer), giving a performance of admirable strength and determination, that holds the show together. With a percolating vulnerability beneath her knowing and experienced gaze, you can't help but feel for Sandy much the way Curt does. Sandy's rises and falls (frequently simultaneously) are hard to watch because of who she is and what she's doing, but it gives a vital perspective to the rest of the characters. Miner handles the transitions beautifully.
The final scene, which finds Sandy and Curt holding hands in a bar, is tender but heart-breaking; the characters come a very long way over the course of two hours, but remain true to themselves at the expense of all else. As an audience member, you'll be able to understand why each of the characters wants to change so much about the others, because you'll want to do it yourself. It's difficult to not want to reach in and stop their never-ending spirals of self-destruction, because you like them so much and you want them to succeed.
The constraints of theatre make that an impossibility, but one that Gilman plays on beautifully, reminding us that certain boundaries should never be crossed. Blue Surge, though, is eminently worth the journey, and its story and portrayals will leave you thinking, as all great theatre does.