Darragh Martin’s script is nothing if not ambitious: celebrity explorer, Caitlin Evans, leaves her faltering marriage for a month to fly across the Antarctic in a hot air balloon and scatter her recently deceased and intellectually curious seven year old son’s ashes there. Fair enough. Unfortunately, for this play and the audience, she for some reason takes along the boy’s talking (yes) pet hamster. An Air Balloon Across America just doesn't try hard enough. The script meanders all over the place and the actors, though talented, don’t really seem to know what their purpose is. Nor do we at times. The hamster, not curiously named “Ham,” played by Jeff Brown, serves as the play’s mascot, introducing scenes by, for some reason, climbing on a step ladder, and then jumping back into the balloon with Caitlin. (A note to the costume designer: make Caitlin at least wear a parka. T-shirts and jeans don’t cut it in the South Pole). When Caitlin and her husband argue about her plans, Ham curls up in the background, alternating winces with cutesy smiles and sentimental eye rolls. To get a sense of how annoying Ham the talking hamster is, just imagine the animated paper clip in Microsoft’s Word for Windows lurking constantly on stage, popping up without provocation. Except here, there’s no handy button allowing you to obliterate it.
The program notes hint at the underlying randomness at the heart of this wandering jumble of a play. Martin explains that when volunteering at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2004, “I chanced upon a poster for a hot air balloon ride next to one for an Antarctic tour and with an explorer and a hamster in the air balloon, it seemed like something could come out of it.” Well, not really.
But, if he were to jettison the silly hamster from that balloon, and the ghosts of explorers past that flit across the stage, proffering words of wisdom and advice for Caitlin as she floats over the cold expanses—in fact, if he were to jettison everything that stifles and weighs this play down—Martin just might have a good, short, one-act play here. The central story is the accidental burning death of young Sam in his backyard treehouse, a death that might have been prevented, and for which Caitlin ad her husband, played by Terence MacSweeny (a younger, more buoyant, version of James is played by Josh Breslow), suffer staggering guilt. Their marriage is falling apart and they can no longer communicate; indeed, they are beginning to despise each other. Now, this could be a play! And it would be wonderful to see Martin, a PhD Theater candidate at Columbia, mature into a playwright who gets to the heart of the matter, one who is unafraid to toss the dead weight overboard.