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In the Secret Sea

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Paul Carlin and Glynnis O'Connor
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Can a theatre piece be too true to life? That's the implicit question beneath Cate Ryan's new work, In the Secret Sea, which just opened at the Beckett Theatre.

More tolerance experiment than a traditional play, it asks—no, demands—that you confront your own beliefs and prejudices about when life begins and ends, and what it means in the interim. But this is not, as you may be thinking, an abortion story. Or not just an abortion story, though that subject does play a role. Ryan wants to go both broader and deeper, and flood you with factual and emotional information that will leave you with no recourse but to throw yourself into doing the right thing. And then, to top it all off, she doesn't even tell you what she thinks the right thing is!

Good for her for not making the wind-down easy, but the wind-up is hardly issue-free. The plot of this 75-minute intermissionless evening officially kick-starts some 20 minutes in, when the 30-year-old Kenny (Adam Petherbridge) arrives at the home of his fiftysomething parents Gil and Joyce (Paul Carlin and Glynnis O'Connor). Something is bothering him, and neither Mom nor Dad can yank it out of him at first. But after several minutes of tortuous interrogation, he relents: The baby he's to have with his wife, Gail, which is now about 16 weeks along, is so severely defected that there is almost no chance it could ever live a normal life.

Not the news you want to hear when you're gathering with the in-laws for Easter dinner, that's for sure. And when Gail's parents, Jack and Audrey (Malachy Cleary and Shelly Burch), show up, at first there's a game of let's-find-out-what-the-other-couple-doesn't-know, and then a self-lacerating free-for-all as each tries to take control and figure out the "best thing" to do. (Kenny conveniently leaves the house so the older folks can have their discussions unimpeded by his inconsolable grief.)

One suspects that Ryan considers what happens before Kenny's appearance even more important. After returning from Mass, Gil and Joyce ponder their feelings about faith and God—he's so fed up with the commercialism, he's a step away from atheism; it's become increasingly important to her as she's aged—and their marriage, about which complexities are clearly roiling beneath the surface. We learn, among other things, that Joyce hated being pregnant, never wanted another kid, and may have never wanted Kenny, and that she and Gil routinely sleep in separate beds. This, of course, seems tailor-made to ensure that when the troubles explode later, there's plenty of fuel for that fire to burn bright and hot.

Shelly Burch, Malachy Cleary, Paul Carlin, and Glynnis O'Connor
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Except it doesn't. Despite the solid character underpinnings and surprising reversals (those in favor of termination and those opposed to it are not necessarily the people you might expect), and the spate of revelations that results from the parents' probing arguments about Kenny and Gail, things don't quite kick over into drama. It's not just that the twists and turns are schematic and predictable (though they are), it's that we're so inundated with data that the mind's expansion keeps crowding out the heart.

Discussions about morals, the law, and social acceptability are endless, mechanical, and inconclusive. Not including Gail as an onstage character cheapens Kenny's relationship with her and the baby, and corrupts the "extended family" atmosphere Ryan so desperately wants to establish. Even the intended-to-shatter "climax" and resolution of the central quandary is limp, dwelling less on the development of their thoughts and spirits than on what they learn when they google "fetal cerebral malformation"—not exactly riveting stuff.

Only O'Connor combines the play's left and right brains, and gives a beautifully aching rendition of a haunted woman facing her most dreaded ghosts. Petherbridge swings too far in the other direction, letting Kenny's rage and sorrow be almost too suffocating to be real, but his attempts are genuine. The others stick mainly to the surface, and seem to be just hitting their marks from director Martin Charnin, who has staged adequately but with little grace on a lovely suburban-Connecticut set by Beowulf Borritt and Alexis Distler that Ken Billington has sensitive lighted.

If In the Secret Sea (the title refers to Joyce's doctor's term for her womb) never completely succeeds, it's an admirable effort, and one of the most fearlessly serious and human plays I've ever seen. Its refusal to rely on tricks and tropes is refreshing, as is its eschewing the easy answers and tidy conclusions so common in the morality plays of our current, iffy era. It insists you consider it fully, wherever your personal opinions may fall, and you sense that it perceives you as a thinking, caring person.

Impossible? Well, yes, you'd think—but I can't recall the last time I felt so... respected by a play. I was not, however, moved in any way but intellectually, remotely. Ryan's every word lands, but none of them perform that rarefied magic act of coalescing into something that transcends its innate falseness to become truer than reality itself could ever be. That ought to be where fact stops and theatre begins, but both fail to achieve their preferred destinies. The resulting show may not be great—or even good—but it's a fascinating and thought-provoking one nonetheless.

In the Secret Sea
Through May 21
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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