What occurs after we die, and when we die will our lives have had any meaning? These questions preoccupy both Steven Haworth and the characters in his new play, Little Fishes, which opened last night at the Hudson Guild Theatre.
The 100 year-old Nels has been residing in a Minneapolis nursing home for three years, being tended to by, and matching wits with, the much younger Brad, one of the playfully sadistic employees. Though Brad takes great delight in tormenting Nels, he is every bit as confused about his own future and death. It is that confusion, and the characters' attempts to better understand their own beliefs and faith, that form the basis for most of the conflict in the play.
As Brad, Nicholas Piper runs through a wide gamut of emotions, and handles them all with apparently great ease. Though he is not always able to make some of the more unwieldy lines land, the moment always comes across. Paul Barry's Nels isn't required to make the emotional leaps that Piper is, but delivers the lines expertly and seriously, making them all work. John Tardibuono, as Brad's assistant (and frequent victim) Pipe, seems out of his element early on, but grows into his character as the evening progresses.
Despite the ability of the cast, and the potential for a fascinating subject, Little Fishes suffers from some flaws that prevent the show from being truly fulfilling. Haworth's writing is frequently repetitive, attempting to drive certain points home more often than is absolutely necessary, even to the point of inserting some out-of-place and far too overt symbolism near the end of the show. There is also a certain uneven quality to the script, which alternately suggests schmaltzy hour-long television drama and serious theatre. Haworth suggests a number of themes including racism, ageism, and even murder that are not adequately dealt with.
A more serious problem is that of the role of Brad, the largest in the show. Brad is clearly preoccupied with death, even to the point of wanting to watch patients as they die. The origin of this preoccupation is never clear, however. Does he work in a nursing home because of his attraction to death, or did he develop that because of his job? The script and the performances don't allow us to make that determination, which results in a certain incompleteness in Brad's character.
Kim T. Sharp's direction, though frequently "by the numbers" and implementing few ideas that elevate the script, generally suits the material. There are a few moments in the show set against music, however, that actually detract from the drama and the atmosphere of impending death he seems to wish to create. Elizabeth Chaney's set design is adequate and colorful, though it doesn't suggest the sterilized, institutional nursing home one might expect.
For the problems with the script and the production, however, the show is never dull, pretentious, or preachy, and has a number of surprisingly funny lines that seem to emerge from the characters more than just meeting a need to "lighten the moment." Even more importantly, the play achieves some very strong dramatic moments near the end, becoming genuinely moving as the characters grow more introspective, and the complexities of their relationships, especially between Nels and Brad, come to light.
The vagaries of death always make for a compelling, if difficult subject. How can a play answer questions to which no living person can have the answers? Little Fishes does its best to search for answers, but does not ultimately succeed. Overall, it feels unfinished, as though the seeds of its ideas were allowed to sprout, but not given time to fully grow. The sincerity of the writing and the production show that the potential for a thoroughly moving and meaningful show is here, but has not yet been fully explored.
Abingdon Theatre Company