Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Surf Report
La Jolla Playhouse

Liv Rooth and Zoë Chao
Many people look at San Diego as paradise.  Annie Weisman may not disagree, but in her new play Surf Report, she populates paradise with some not-very-likeable people doing not-very-nice things to each other.  The fact that the La Jolla Playhouse audience wants to come back from intermission is a tribute to the layers Ms. Weisman has built into her plot.

Surf Report opens at the La Jolla home of Bruce (Gregory Harrison), a venture capitalist who seems to love surfing more than picking investments that will pay off handily.  The day's surf report has come in, and it's going to be one of those days that surfers dream about all year.  Judith (Linda Gehringer), Bruce's personal assistant, has leapt into action, only to find that all of the good surfing locations are dangerously polluted.  She manages to find one spot, about an hour's drive north, where the pollution is at tolerable levels, as long as Bruce wears a full wet suit.  Off Bruce goes.  Of course, he happens to meet there a professor from nearby University of California, San Diego (where the La Jolla Playhouse campus is located), and a brief conversation is enough to make Bruce realize that he may have met his next venture.

Judith, for her part, has a family: husband Hal (Matthew Arkin) and daughter Bethany (Zoë Chao).  Hal has recently had to let go of his dream of building a bread-making business, while Bethany has angrily decamped to New York City with a dream of becoming an art photographer.  Hal has also suffered a recurrence of testicular cancer, and the family has no health insurance.  Organized as she is, Judith has found a clinical trial involving a high tech device that claims to target cancer cells very precisely, a device in which she longs for Bruce to make an investment.  For her part, Bethany has pretty much run out of time and money in New York, but she has recently bumped into one last hope—an apprenticeship with a major art photographer.  Bethany has applied and is a finalist for the position.

Ms. Weisman's plot conspires to bring Bethany to San Diego from New York (one of several too-convenient such turns).  Once back, Bethany quickly runs into Jena (Liv Rooth), a woman she knew in high school.  Jena likes to pretend that she is a "surfette," but in reality she is stuck caring for her mother, who is dying of cancer.  Crisis happens on several fronts and, while its resolution is predictable, the ways in which the resolution occurs are both horrifying and insightful.

All five of these characters (it seems like a much bigger cast, though, because there are several characters who are integral to the plot but who are never seen) have developed learned helplessness.  They are desperate for connection with each other, but they keep pushing each other away.  They are simultaneously land-bound and "at sea," a dilemma that confuses each of them in different ways.  They are stuck in unwanted repetitive behavior patterns, and they can't figure out how to get out of them.  And, Ms. Weisman, in the end, really has no solution for them, either, just new and different ways of repeating the cycle.

Lisa Peterson directs this intertwined braid of DNA with a sure hand and without pausing for much introspection.  All of the designers do interesting work in the difficult-to-manage Mandell Weiss Forum space, but Rachel Hauck's scenic design is a standout, contrasting the straight lines and right angles of modernist design with the swirling surf nearby.

The cast makes us believe that we know these unlikeable and "stuck people and that we might actually find most of them to be charming if we met them face-to-face.  I even found Mr. Harrison's Bruce to share a lot of qualities with my brother-in-law, though, fortunately for my sister, he has an intimate, caring side that isn't just always looking for the next deal, a quality that Bruce does not exhibit during the course of the play.  Mr. Arkin has the most difficult character in Hal, the sort-of-lovable loser (it is no accident that his cancer is testicular), while Ms. Rooth manages to let her desperation poke through the wisecracks.  Ms. Chao and Ms. Gehringer catch well how intertwined yet how seemingly different are daughter and mother.  Ms. Gehringer gets the last bow at the curtain call, but there's no real central character.  Like the rest of the play, this device seems at once innovative and maddening.

Surf Report strives to catch a ride through July 11.

The La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere production of Surf Report, by Annie Weisman.  The production is directed by Lisa Peterson with scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by Ben Stanton, and sound design and original music by John Gromada.  The cast consists of Matthew Arkin, Zoë Chao, Linda Gehringer, Gregory Harrison, and Liv Rooth.  Tickets ($31 - $66) are available from the La Jolla Playhouse box office, at (858) 550-1010, or online at The La Jolla Playhouse website.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz  

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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