nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
May 14, 2005
Last night at the tiny Where Eagles Dare Theatre on West 36th Street, I saw a tremendous play about… about what? The interconnectedness of the human spirit? The transcendent power of love and desire? Big ideas on that little stage, for sure. But in the hands of seven talented performers, Mark Finley’s deceptively simple new play, The Mermaid, slowly unfolds into a complex tapestry that is thoroughly contemporary, richly moving, and engaging from beginning to end.
In 1962, Judith (Rachel Eve Moses), Lee (Paul Caiola), and Reid (Joe Tuttle) are students at an Indiana college. Judith, an aspiring actress, and Reid, an athletic scholar, are cast as the romantic leads in the school’s production of Ondine, a play about a mermaid that won a Tony Award for Audrey Hepburn in the title role. The play will be directed by Miss DuCane (Gail Dennison), the school's esteemed drama teacher, who softens each of life’s rougher moments with a tumbler of vodka. Lee, also an aspiring thespian, does not get cast, but becomes instead the teacher’s production assistant. Meanwhile, in 1998 the unemployed and possibly alcoholic Martin (Derek Staranowski) and his serious and stable partner Ken (Nathan Johnson) are struggling with the idea of adopting a young girl with some developmental problems—a mermaid of sorts—which is mostly Ken’s idea. Martin himself was adopted, and is struggling with his own identity. Their best friend, Amy (Karen Stanion), is in the midst of her own struggle, hoping to take the next major leap as an actress by landing an important part on a soap opera.
In ‘62, Rachel and Reid develop feelings for each other. As it turns out, Lee has similar feeling for Reid. I don’t think I’m giving anything away here. His character is clearly gay from the beginning. Caiola is heartbreaking as Lee when he comes out to Judith. It is 1962, and being gay is much more painful and traumatizing than it might be today. In Caiola’s hands, Lee’s agony is subtle and quite palpable. This moment is even more striking set against the relatively healthy ‘98 relationship of Martin and Ken (oh, Martin and Ken have problems, for sure, but accepting their sexual orientation is not one of them).
In ’98, Martin falls deeper and deeper into a personal existential depression, avoiding his own search for his past as a way of putting off the future and the adoption that will make Ken’s life complete. Both the script and Johnson’s performance as Ken are beautifully restrained here, revealing so much of the 39-year-old man’s paternal longing through his eyes and body language. The one full-out fight between the two men is also strikingly true-to-life, and immediately recognizable to any couple that has confronted serious, life-changing issues.
There’s not much more of the plot I can tell you about without giving too much away, but trust me, I have only scratched the surface here. The stories weave together in unexpected ways, and much of the delight of the play is in the many surprises and unexpected discoveries that the audience makes along the way about the characters and their relationships to one another. The one scene that does not seem needed is the opening of Act Two, in which all the characters come on stage together and Miss DuCane explains to them all, and to the audience, that two different time frames will be going on simultaneously, and that new characters will be appearing momentarily (some of the actors play small secondary roles in Act Two). This scene is completely unnecessary. The audience gets the setup by now, and will have no problem understanding the secondary characters either. Finley should trust his well-crafted writing and Barry Child’s clear and flowing direction which slowly reveals the relationships, both personal and thematic, between the characters in these two time frames.
Softening the serious edges is Gail Dennison as Miss DuCane, whose character is a catalyst and mentor. Dennison is so sharp and on target in her comic delivery that you cannot wait for her to come back on stage. Her performance is powerful and controlled, giving DuCane the eloquence and sharp wit she needs to center the action of that scene. Karen Stanion as Amy is also a bottomless riot, with many of the plays biggest laughs. I expect this from Stanion. I have seen her walk off with scenes in many other plays (will someone give her a sitcom already?). What surprised me here was her equally strong handling of Amy’s sadder more frustrating moments when… no, I won’t give it away.
Finley has given us complex characters and a well-crafted script, leaving us with many questions. These are stories that are bound to touch you; real human stories that deserve to fill a much larger theatre.