By Gardner McKay; Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Extended through 7.13.14
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
by Jason Rost on 5.5.14
Xanthe Elbrick and Patrick Fitzgerald in Sea Marks. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Sleepless in the West of Galway -- this romantic comedy for Irish fishermen is a predictable, but fun, catch and release.
It’s certainly an understandable idea for the Irish Repertory Theatre to end its excellent season, which included the splendid Juno and the Paycock, with the two-hander romantic comedy Sea Marks. On paper it is a charming, if familiar, story about an Irish rural fisherman being plucked out of the wild by a city-savvy book publisher from Liverpool. The late New York playwright Gardner McKay wrote the play in 1971 and it has gone on to an afterlife primarily in regional houses due to the small cast size, light sexual comedy, and Irish exoticism.
More than standard fluff, McKay’s play does have depths to explore in the poetry and transformation of its characters. Director Ciaran O’Reilly actually does find this complexity, but it’s the simplicity of two people falling in love on stage that proves to be tricky in this latest production.
Another New York playwright has recently penned an Irish romantic comedy that was quite successful this season, John Patrick Shanley’s Broadway production of Outside Mullingar. Like that play, Sea Marks has a meat and potatoes (and whiskey and stout) virgin man in his 40s who needs some help being brought of his shell by a more assertive female romantic interest. McKay’s piece is set in the late 1960s though, and when it was written the idea of a career-minded woman was a bit more revolutionary.
Colm (Patrick Fitzgerald) begins the play with a long metaphoric monologue (as any good Irish play should). “I live by the sea. I have always lived by the sea. I can’t know what it would be like living anywhere else.” In that first line we get what the plot will essentially be about. Being so secluded Colm has never courted a woman. Even though he has ventured into Galway a few times he’s never even “paid to lay with a harridan.” However he eyed a pretty girl from Liverpool at a recent wedding and begins correspondence via the post. Timothea (Xanthe Elbrick) writes back. The letters begin formal and short until they grow longer and more personal. Timothea becomes enamored with Colm’s poetic musings about life by the sea.
McKay’s structure is the perfect romantic comedy setup of pen pals who grow into lovers. The first physical meeting between Colm and Timothea is perhaps the most endearing of the play. It’s also when Fitzerald and Elbrick have the finest chemistry as their awkwardness meets budding attraction. From here McKay moves the couple along rapidly, especially Colm, as he moves to Liverpool on a trial basis testing out a relationship with Timothea.
Fitzgerald and O’Reilly have somewhat of a hard time keeping up with the quick transitions being thrown at the character of Colm in the plot as he experiences city life in a new country, living with a woman in an apartment, losing his virginity, and having it revealed that he is now a published author, all within a relatively short amount of time. The result is a somewhat brutish version of the more nuanced character portrayed in the opening of the play.
O’Reilly does do a lovely job staging his two actors with much depth supported by a rotating set designed by Charlie Corcoran. However, Fitzgerald's transformation into a published poet is a hard sell in McKay’s writing. It’s highlighted unfortunately by Fitzgerald’s brash punching of the language. It’s challenging to believe Timothea’s attraction to Colm beyond the beauty of his words. Still there is a strong performance by the Tony-nominated Elbrick. She embodies the spirit of an ambitious literary type taken with the wild non-intellectual man of the sea. Why she carries on ignoring his discomfort in this new world is puzzling though.
We know where the play is headed in this “fish out of water” story from the start. You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not the Irish out of the man...or something to that point. Ultimately, it’s the comedy and the poetry that shine in McKay’s script. In navigating the surface plot, Fitzgerald and Elbrick hit the zingers, but not always the chemistry under the sheets. In a struggle between home and love, it seems too easy for Colm to choose.
Sea Marks is also a play about connecting through the written word -- an idea stereotypically yet inherently Irish. McKay’s language still enlivens our spirits and brings out the laughs. It’s a predictable, funny love story that has been told time and again in film and theatre. Still, it’s a light spring treat at the end of a more intellectually challenging season for Irish Rep audiences.
(Sea Marks plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, through July 13, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays at 3PM and 8PM; Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 3PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $55-$65 and are available at irishrep.org or by calling 212.727.2737.)