The concept behind Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances, currently having its Baltimore premiere at Fells Point Corner Theatre, is simple: Bring together a bunch of eccentrics in an expressive locale—in this case, a private beach in WASP-y Massachusetts—and they will inevitably stumble into rich topics of conversation and memorable actions. This strategy has its payoffs—characters in Coastal Disturbances ponder the fate of the dolphins of Atlantis and practice seduction by sand burial—yet it is an all-too-familiar refuge for writers with a store of witticisms but little in the way of plot. I tend to grow impatient with these plays, though it’s very possible I’m in the minority—Coastal Disturbances won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play, after all.
In his program notes Jay Gilman, who directed the Fells Point production, has anticipated my objection: “I hope you take in this show not as a plot-centered ‘traditional’ play, but as an in-depth exploration of the human being and our increasingly vital organ in today’s world: the heart. If so, you are no doubt awaiting the observation of some very fascinating specimen[s].” These “specimens” include several pairs of lovers and would-be lovers, of whom the most prominent are Leo, a lifeguard whose boyish charms are packaged in an incredible body, and Holly, a promising young photographer who cannot help but notice Leo’s incredible body.
Gilman makes a fair point (though he perhaps overlooks the extent to which these plotless “theme” pieces have developed traditions of their own). But if you’re going to do away with plot—or at least make it the least crucial ingredient in your love story—then your lovers had better be compelling. And this is where Howe loses me—not only did I not care whether Leo and Holly ended up together, I found their on-again-off-again antics increasingly tiresome.
The main problem is that neither Leo nor Holly—indeed, none of the play’s adults—seems to possess more maturity than the two kids with whom they share the beach. Holly falls apart when her tripod won’t open; Leo chases Holly around his chair proclaiming his love; Holly falls apart when Leo invites her on a boat ride; Leo tells Holly about other vulnerable women he has freaked out. Their quirks are as overstated as their last names—sweet, mopey Leo is Hart; the perpetually moving Holly is Dancer—and the actors make little effort to temper the extremes. Michael Alban and Maddie Hicks look the parts, and they occasionally find moments of calm in which to savor their chemistry, but soon enough the glint in his eyes reverts to obsession and her nerves threaten to break. Their relationship alternates between creepy and exhausting, and so the hopeful ending feels unearned.
The other performances are more or less of a kind, variations on the themes of coupling and couplehood. Jonathan Claiborne and Jill Vanderweit play an elderly husband and wife whose marriage has weathered nine children and stretches of boredom and infidelity; they’re good-natured busybodies who ultimately seem the most normal of anyone onstage. Elena Kostakis and Kate McKenna play Ariel and Faith, former college roommates now raising their children without much help from men; Faith’s husband at least sounds like a decent guy (though we never meet him), but Ariel is four years divorced and, in what seems a gratuitous detail, recently discharged from a “funny farm” where she went after a failed suicide attempt. Like Alban and Hicks, Kostakis and McKenna mostly exaggerate their characters’ neuroses, though Ariel does share a tender scene with her son in Act II.
As for the kids, played by Jacob Jedynak and Destiny Brown, their main function in the play seems to be to rocket around the stage while their overwhelmed mothers yell at them to behave. Whether intentionally or no, the most interesting character is an emissary from the outside world, Holly’s sometime-lover, Andre, an influential gallery owner who may or may not be sincere in his promises to give Holly a show. Brian Douglas endows Andre with a rich voice and a surprising amount of sympathy. Perhaps because he and Holly share a history, their few scenes together are charged with subtext, and Douglas and Hicks relate to each other like human beings rather than caricatures or cartoons.