Rooms by the Sea: Artful, But Empty

◊◊ out of five.

Edward Hopper, American painter, is probably an artist everyone knows, though few would know his name.  A prolific man, his painting "Nighthawks" (left) is his most famous.  It entered American pop culture on its own as a defining moment in art history, and was made even more famous by others who superimposed other icons on to it, such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and even Homer Simpson.  And though it may seem an obvious choice for inclusion in Rooms by the Sea, a new work by local playwright Mark Squirek, he wisely steered clear of it, as most of us probably bring some sort of preconceived baggage when that image pops up.  Instead, this evening of theatre focuses on five other pieces by Hopper; it is an evening of five short plays that suppose what is happening in these pictures.  This would seem an excellent idea for a play, and it is.  But the execution of it, directed by Alex Willis and John Garner, is uneven, and ends up leaving you cold.

What works about the evening is the concept.  A series of life sized slides of Hopper's works goes on upstage, like we are flipping through a book of his paintings, then it stops, the image frozen.  Then set pieces and finally actors are brought onstage such that they take up the same space projected on the wall.  The painting disappears, and all that remains upstage is a white light version of Hopper's light source.  The effect is riveting, instantly drawing you into the important elements of the painting, and making you crave to know what is going on in the drama of it.

First up, is New York Movie (painting, right) which has Sylvia (Kerry Brady) upset and outside the balcony entrance at a movie theatre.  We are instantly transported back to a nostalgic decade by the image.  Enter Jackson (Reese Thornberry), her lover and, he thinks, future husband.  When she reveals that she is pregnant, he is happy, and she is skipping town as "girls in a certain predicament" often did then.  Both Thornberry and Brady capture that heightened style of acting from the 50's when you didn't swear and emotions were high.  Oddly, the argument never resolves; the scene is over, leaving the audience to now impose its own ending.  The effect thus far is a good one; we have questions at the start and at the end.

Chop Suey (painting, left) is the next play/painting, focusing on the two women lunching.  Reilly (Ashley Watson) is a dancer, somewhat famous, and Syain (Adele Russell) is her sister, still in the hometown, holding down the family fort.  They are catching up, until the real tension is brought forth.  It seems Reilly never made it home for her mother's funeral, and given their relationship, it is not surprising.  While Syain portends to understand, her real concern is how it looks to the neighbors.  An argument of sorts ensues and the play is over.  Again we are left with questions, but here the concept starts to wear thin, as perhaps we really don't care enough about these people.  Both Russell and Watson play their roles with a certain distancing detachment, though understandably given the circumstances, which leaves a viewer uncaring.  Their situation isn't that compelling.

The final scene of act one is based on Conference at Night (painting, right), which takes place at a comic book publishing company during the McCarthy era, with the characters walking on eggshells over being potentially "listed".  Compounding that is the fact that the editor, James (Tony Colavito) must "fire" employees and keep them on secretly.  Then there is the agent, Ritchie (Michael Butscher), who is insisting that his reluctant charge, Marie (Kerry Brady) be given cover credit for her work.  This piece is the most complex of the evening and touches on many themes (covering up controversy, women in the war effort vs. women working after the war) and it is the best written.  It plays like a graphic novel, and is directed with starts and stops creating those individual pictures that comics have.  You can almost see thought bubbles above the actors' heads.  Perhaps it is because this topic is near and dear to the playwright that it comes off well.  Butscher plays the blow hard agent well, never getting annoying, but never really giving in, either.  And Butler and Colavito have that 40's 50's noir style down pat, and have a palpable connection.

The titular work, Rooms by the Sea (painting, left), opens the second act, and is by far the most unsettling and least satisfying, though perhaps the best acted.  It is the only painting that doesn't have any people in it, so, forgive the pun-Squirek is working from a dramatically blank canvas.  The sky's the limit then, but what he filled it with is perplexing, annoying and so lacking in content that it would be easy to dismiss.  That is until you watch two of the area's finest young actors have a go at it.  Jaynie (Tiffany James) and Mike (Reese Thornberry) are lovers and friends.  Something has happened (we never even come close to knowing what it is, trust me) and an angry Jaynie wants to either separate for the day ("Take a walk on the beach!" she demands easily 50 times, no exaggeration) or just go home.  Mike, the dolt man that he is, doesn't get the hint, and argues his way into more trouble by pleading "what is wrong?, "what is happening?" over and over and over.  Basically, there are about 6 lines of dialogue either repeated verbatim or changes with synonyms.  If it weren't for the riveting performances of James and Thornberry, I'd be angry about the 15 minutes of my life I'll never get back thanks to this scene.  Ms. James takes silent acting to a new level, and says more about deep seeded anger as she quietly peels fruit than any five pages of dialogue might, and Mr. Thornberry does the impossible.  He makes each endlessly repeated line new and fresh.  By the way, the argument topic is neither revealed nor resolved.  And you really don't care.

The final scene, based on Gas (painting, right), takes place during the Kennedy years, where we still clung to innocence, even as the world threatened to annihilate itself.  It is a charming scene, almost Norman Rockwell like.  Kids run off to play ball and to see a Korean war veteran pitch, while a fill up at the pump was $4.09, and $4.50 got you the gas, a pack of smokes and a tip for the attendant.  Young Andrew Lee as Tommy, is a charming actor, very real, and not cutesy, and he has an excellent chemistry with Joan Crooks, who plays his Grama.  Ms. Crooks has that innocent, morally upright characterization nicely in check.  Michael Butscher, as Mr. Jeffrey, an older townsman, comes in to "set a spell" and is the embodiment of small town values.  Then he launches into a rather pointed (and uncharacteristically forced) speech about how war throughout American History makes little sense, and how America should keep its nose out of another country's business.  He squints as he tries to figure out our interest in that new hot spot, Vietnam.  It is a very thinly veiled anti-war sentiment, applicable to today, and just adds to a growing list of tired anti-Iraq rhetoric in plays.  Everyone, of course, is entitled to have their say on the matter.  So I'll have mine. Enough already!

And so Rooms by the Sea both succeeds and fails.  The concept is excellent, the staging superb and the acting mostly good.  The decade spanning works, and if I cared more for some of the characters, leaving us unfinished in each scene is a novel way to keep the audience engaged.  What is missing is a through line.  Maybe a common theme is needed?  Mr. Squirek has something here.  Let's hope he keeps working on it.  Every picture benefits from a nice frame.

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Mark Squirek.  TOP to BOTTOM: Michael Butscher, Kerry Brady and Tony Colavito in "Conference at Night"; Reese Thornberry and Tiffany James in "Rooms by the Sea"; and Joan Crooks and Andrew Lee in "Gas".

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