Theater

With Good Direction, Tina Howe’s “Singing Beach” Might Have Worked

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Broadly speaking, child actors can be charming onstage; simply overlook the shrill delivery and wooden emoting and revel in their winning innocence. But wee thespians forced to mouth Tina Howe’s genteel absurdist banter face a special challenge. Elodie Lucinda Morss and Jackson Demott Hill, playing siblings Piper and Tyler in Singing Beach, get a lot of stage time and plenty of arch, allusive verbiage. In the first scene, twelve-year-old Tyler (Hill), taunting his camera-toting sister Piper (Morss), name-checks Cecil B. DeMille and Orson Welles. Coming from the mouth of a contemporary tween, this qualifies as science fiction. You must remind yourself that they’re only kids doing the best they can. Similarly, Howe, closing in on eighty but chronically youthful in spirit, does the best she can with this gauzy, windblown capriccio on climate change and dementia. If only she had good design and direction, or the juvenile roles had been taken by adults.

Category 4 Hurricane Cassandra is steaming toward the coastal town of Manchester, Massachusetts, a meteorological visitation that coincides with the impending departure of senile poet Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan) for a local nursing home. Sleeper’s novelist daughter, Merrie (Erin Beirnard), frets that packing him off to assisted living’s akin to “tossing him into an open grave.” Her second husband, classics professor Owen (John P. Keller), approves of the arrangement. Daughter Piper is sad to see Grandpa go — especially since she’s friends with his caregiver, Bennie (Naren Weiss) — and so she hatches a plan. In Piper’s colorful imagination, she and the codger board the S.S. Pegasus and sail for freedom. Back in the real world, the tropical storm makes landfall on moving day, intensifying the antic wishfulness of Piper’s fantasies. People from the main plot pop up in Piper’s daydreams in more amenable form: Nasty brother Tyler reappears as a cheerful stowaway; Merrie transforms into Piper’s eco-conscious science teacher; and the charming Devin E. Haqq joins the fun as Gabriel Justice, a TV star Piper adores.

When a script lurches between poles as disparate as domestic naturalism and child’s fantasy, transitions are everything; Howe’s playfully stylized dialogue can’t do it alone. It’s in these moments where director Ari Laura Kreith’s tin-eared, unhandsome production comes up short. Scenes slosh awkwardly from one to the next on a plain set of boards and sadly draped white sheets, accompanied by Nick Straniere’s thin sound design. The actors likewise flail. Howe might be at home in her usual milieu of overeducated, under-feeling New England WASPs, but the cast visibly struggles to connect with their brittle, literary social types.

Singing Beach is Howe’s first full-length work since 2009’s Chasing Manet (which also featured mentally frail seniors and escapism on fancy ships). For decades, Howe’s semi-surreal brand has required innovative design and capable actors to rescue it from the realm of twee, mannered whimsy. This damp staging smacks too much of kids playing dress-up.

Singing Beach
HERE
145 Sixth Avenue
212-352-3101
theatre167.org
Through August 12

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