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The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters
Rob Campbell and Laura Heisler
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Take your pick: morality play, anti-morality play, or morality anti-play. Any one of these monikers describes, at various points, the waterlogged mess that is Marlane Meyer's The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, which Playwrights Horizons just opened at its Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

Despite its constant focus on doing what's right — often through doing what's wrong — Lisa Peterson's wildly miscalculated production never seems to know what it's doing at all. And that's a shame because, in its more lucid moments, the well-meaning if oversaturated play it obscures indicates that it might actually have some reason for being.

It takes an eon or two to arrive there, however, with the first stop setting the tone in a way that seems to insist upon head scratching and hair pulling. On a rickety stage with makeshift footlights, a trio of actors intone, in their best remedial high-school approximations, lines proscribing a terrible tragedy: an older woman (Candy Buckley) railing at one young man (Rob Campbell) over a lifeless body while another (Danny Wolohan) enters to facilitate the burial.

Who is the girl, why is she dead, and why is the ostensible mother presiding over such a horrific scene? These questions will be answered in due time, but not until Campbell's character, Calvin, leaps into the future and begins romancing a limping young doctor named Aubrey (Laura Heisler) who's living in a boarding house, and who is his psychological, intellectual, and emotional superior in every way.

Opposites attract and all that, so it's not long until the womanizing Calvin inserts himself into her blood — and, um, other things — and leaves the naοve woman fielding expectations and fantasies he doesn't intend to fulfill. So naturally it's only a matter of time until both become convinced and completely transformed by the other. Which, when you factor in their friends, family, and church, creates all sorts of problems.

The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters
Rob Campbell and Candy Buckley with members of the company
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Or should, at any rate. But like Sarah Ruhl, who's churned out at least half a dozen plays that could be mistaken for this one in a dark alley, Meyer has so stuffed her play with random ideas that none gains any traction. Let's leave aside for just a moment the supporting characters, who range from Calvin's redneck (and — need it be said? — flaming Republican) mother, Helen (Buckley, in the role from the top of the show), to the battered wife Penny (Jacqueline Wright), to Calvin's coworker Bill (Haynes Thigpen), who is apparently nothing more than Canadian, or the presence of Jesus (Wolohan) and a falsetto-speaking fortune-teller called Psychic Tom (Thigpen).

Considerably more crucial are elements such as the scattershot Aubrey, who views tiny declarations as decrees from God, but is willing to sacrifice her virginity at the first opportunity. Then again, given that her faith derives from the nonexistent Saint Martyr Bride, who embodies all of Aubrey's issues (she's the patron saint of spinsters, childhood infirmity, and... oh, just look at the title), it's not as though her religious underpinnings are that strong anyway. Worse, nothing at all explains why Aubrey — far and away the most capable person we meet — is as dumb as this plot catalyst requires her to be.

Of course, belief in the unseen and unproven is an undercurrent throughout all the interactions, and Meyer becomes more compelling at threading it through the action as the evening wears on. The final scenes, when hope is all that's left after a series of plot twists far too tedious to recount here, crackle with an anticipation and, more important, an honesty that the rest of the play actively discourages.

This is primarily because every performance — every performance — is a variation of the plastic fakery deployed in the prologue. It's not completely without point, as assembling a barely human grotesquerie around Calvin and Aubrey makes it possible to contrast them with the figurative and literal wildlife who, as decked out in Chagall-inspired masks, constantly prowl at the periphery of the stage and give the duo something and somewhere to evolve from.

But Peterson has not ensured that the actors also remain watchable. She allows them to amplify every bit of caricature, from Campbell's heartless hillbilly bent to Heisler's unremitting and adenoidal nerdiness to Buckley's crazed trailer-park delivery to Thigpen's thuddingly stereotypical line readings (Meyer includes plenty of "-out" words Thigpen can pronounce with a clarion "oot"); only Wolohan, and only when playing Penny's husband Jack, strikes something close to a proper balance of outsize projection and expansive menace. Otherwise, the acting forces the play to become nothing more than a presentational pageant making one-dimensional points. (This includes, most gratingly, the characters delivering lengthy political screeds directly to the audience.)

Even this would be bearable if it resolved dramatically, but it doesn't. There's no payoff for making all the world an extension of the stage we see at the beginning (Rachel Hauck designed the surreal-nightmare scenery, Paloma Young the ruthlessly unflattering costumes, and Russell H. Champa the kitschy lights), and, indeed, the script doesn't so much as hint at the frame or the playing style beyond stating that "the overall feel of the play is that of a drama," but "it must be played with its comedic elements intact without sacrificing its magical elements."

Those magical elements are intact, but the drama and the comedy are never allowed to step into the light. Most of what appears in The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters is a crude vulgarity that crushes any thoughtfulness that may exist in the words on the page. Calvin and Aubrey's battles against their families and faith promise some heft, but how could anything substantial get through to a show that spends all its time fighting against itself?


The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters
Through December 1
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral