Thirty years ago Coastal Disturbances captured the fancy of Reagan-era theatergoers, catapulting playwright Tina Howe from a niche in the New York avant-garde to the commercial heights of Broadway. Set on a private stretch of sand along the North Shore of Massachusetts, that whimsical comedy featured Annette Bening and Tim Daly, who made the angst and self-absorption of Howe’s baby boomers endearing, poignant and, above all, hilarious.
Coastal Disturbances depicted a stormy romance between arty patrician Holly Dancer and Leo Hart, a lifeguard with street cred, head-turning physique, and at least as many hang-ups as the ever-agitated Holly. Natural phenomena in Howe’s narrative—extreme changes in weather, for instance, and the carcass of a whale, attacked by sharks, that washes ashore—reflected the characters’ fragile emotional states. For all its drama, though, Coastal Disturbances was unfailingly comedic.
In her new play, Singing Beach, Howe (now 79) is once again charting the weather along the Massachusetts coast, as well as the changeability of her characters’ psyches. During the past 30 years much has changed in the playwright’s imaginative universe (as it has, of course, in the world at large). Singing Beach is far darker in tone than Coastal Disturbances; the shoreline in the play is public rather than private; and the principal characters, with one exception, are Gen Xers and millennials. The implications of the story’s extreme meteorological conditions are as much societal (even global) as personal, especially the specter of climate change.
The Sleeper clan of Singing Beach is summering near Gloucester, Mass. (in the “not too distant future”). As Hurricane Cassandra hurtles toward their beach haven, wife Merrie and husband Owen argue about how to deal with the deterioration, physical and mental, of poet and paterfamilias Ashton (Tuck Milligan). It’s a tense situation, exacerbated by the atmosphere’s record-breaking torridity. “Three months at over 110 degrees,” laments Owen. “This isn’t a heat wave, but an inferno.”
Consumed with daughterly guilt, Merrie (Erin Beirnard) wants to keep her father at home. Since he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and can’t communicate or care for himself, she has hired a nurse (Naren Weiss) to assist. Owen (John P. Keller), Merrie’s second husband, is determined to get Ashton off the family’s hands. Twelve Trees, the “gold standard of assisted living facilities,” is Owen’s proposed solution. “Send him away and he’ll die of a broken heart,” Merrie cautions Owen.
Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill), who’s 12, cares only about whether the approaching storm or the family’s dispute about grandpa’s welfare will interfere with his participation in a fencing tournament. Ten-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss), on the other hand, is a generous-hearted foil to the rest of the household. She comforts and keeps her grandfather company, and she imagines ways she might shield him from the domestic storm brewing between her mother and stepfather.
Singing Beach shifts back and forth between the harsh reality of the Sleeper household and the gentler precinct of Piper’s imagination. In the Sleeper’s home, preparations are underway simultaneously for the onslaught of Hurricane Cassandra and for relocation of Ashton to Twelve Trees. Piper, the play’s most outwardly oriented character, is absorbed with more cosmic concerns. She equates the fate of her grandfather with the fortunes of the whole earth, and her fantasies incorporate what she has learned from a charismatic science teacher about global warming and the tribal loyalties of Bedouin culture.
Scenic designer Jen Price Fick and lighting designer Matthew Fick have created a multilevel environment, suggestive rather than detailed, appropriate for Howe’s theatrical humoresque. The beach is all white-hot glare; and Piper’s imaginary resort is soothing pastels on billowing light-colored fabric. The simplicity of the set allows director Ari Laura Kreith and her actors to execute the script’s leaps, back and forth between two worlds, swiftly and efficiently.
This Theatre 167 presentation features seven appealing actors, with effective doubling by Beirnard, Hill, Keller, and Weiss. The production, however, has an earnest quality that undermines the magical realism of Howe’s writing, and the pace of the performances is too lackadaisical to be compelling. These weaknesses are most egregious in the conclusion, when Piper leads a parade, including her grandfather, to safety from a world fraught with peril.
The final scene of Singing Beach evokes the messianic vision of Isaiah: “The wolf ... shall dwell with the lamb ... and a little child shall lead them.” It’s a turn of events calling for theatrical legerdemain lacking in this production. At a moment when the stage ought to glow with wonder and the auditorium ring with eschatological music, Kreith and her sound designer Nick Straniere manage only an anemic hum to set the pace for Piper and her posse on their apocalyptic way. Piper and her playwright deserve more than that.
Singing Beach, presented by Theatre 167, plays through Aug. 12 at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Avenue). Evening performances are 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; matinees 4 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call the box office (212) 352-3101 or visit HERE.org.