Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Barrier Island

Photo/Antonio Miniño

Barrier Island lays some nice groundwork for what David Stallings calls his Galveston Cycle. It establishes the "regulars" of this Texas isle--or more particularly, of Cappadona's Bar--and follows these stubborn, sheltered people right up to the edge of 2008's Hurricane Ike, which devastated the residents who had refused the mandatory evacuation. However, the show remains as dramatically loose as its characters are emotionally tight, and Stallings works too hard to create meaning out of a metaphoric exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. And since he can't explain why these people choose to stay, their fate is just all the more cryptic and dissatisfying, a play that works to actively write itself into a corner.

The play is littered with dead ends: every single subplot that's introduced--one for every other character--is resolved with a bland dismissal, all of which serves to make Barrier Island feel unimportant and, ironically (in the face of a hurricane) low-stakes. Too-young Steph (Anne Clare Gibbons-Brown) has struck up a relationship with the mentally stunted Carl (Mark Emerson): when her washed-up yet sensible mother Cheryl (Carol Hickey) finds out, she simply accepts it. Susie (Alex Bond) is shown to be a fighter, first when she tries to sell out a local business for a 1-800-FLOWERS commission and again when she tries to wiggle out of back rent, but both cases are met with wishy-washy resignation from her bar-owner husband, Nate (David L. Carson), and the drama is quickly paved over with cheap forgiveness. At one point, Bob (Stu Richel), as much a fixture of the bar as the stool he sits on, has so little to do that he actually falls asleep: this, too, is ignored.

Even the main plot is haltingly fleshed out: Laura (Jennifer Laine Williams) has returned home because her father is in a coma, and her mother is growing senile. She's stayed away from ten years so as to avoid the embarrassment of being a single mother, but it's unclear why: her son, Daniel (Frankie Seratch), is a veritable angel, and it's not like she'd be the first scorned woman in this town. (After all, even the oft-drunk Cheryl's a librarian at the Catholic school.) While in town, she meets Trey (Anthony Crep), who was once too shy to ask her out, and now remains shy simply for "dramatic" purposes -- as if coy flirtations alone could save Barrier Island. (Given the almost lethargic bar that's set by this play, it almost does.) The two reveal things about themselves, most notably how changed they've been by the outside world, but these things remain empty words. As much as Trey might insist that they've got more than one shade, the fact that he keeps insisting that they leave and that she unjustifiably keeps refusing to go tells another story.

And that's where Barrier Island is stuck: it's always either refusing to tell a story, luxuriating instead with small talk, or it's telling the wrong story, one that doesn't go anywhere. Cristina Alicea's level-headed direction is stuck sparring when it wants to be boxing, and the most truthful part of the play comes from Craig Napoliello's spot-on depiction of a rustic, non-commercial bar. The nice, small moments that survive are like fragile embers that must now be carefully tended to by Stallings: he's got the makings of a fiery drama, but he can't keep backing away from letting it out--even if he's got to burn down this comfort zone of a play to do so.

No comments: