The first production in the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays opened Friday at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Directed by associate artistic director Meredith McDonough, Sam Marks’ “The Delling Shore” is dark comedy about two feuding middle-aged novelists and their daughters who reunite for a disastrous weekend in the country.
Marks is a savagely funny playwright who avoids easy distinctions between winners and underdogs as the two writers pick at old wounds and land fresh blows. The power exchanges between characters are delicately wrought but wielded like daggers, and in the end, neither man looks good in his daughter’s eyes.
Thomas (Jim Frangione) has done well for himself since he and Frank (Bruce McKenzie) were in graduate school—a thriving publishing career, a National Book Award, a very wealthy second wife whose family owns the country house where Thomas spends most of his time. Frank? Not so much. He’s the editor of a middling literary journal, frustrated with his own creative work, an also-ran for better jobs—a bit of a failure.
The two men enjoy the disquieting intimacy of long-time friends who no longer like each other very much. The antagonism starts from the top of the show, when Frank and his 19-year-old daughter Adrianne (Catherine Combs) arrive four hours late, to the disapproval of Thomas (who likely had hoped they wouldn’t show) and his 25-year-old daughter Ellen (Meredith Forlenza), who is decidedly unimpressed with their guests. They are not gracious hosts, and Frank chafes immediately under their abrasive welcome and the needs that brought him here. He’s finished a novel manuscript, has an interested editor, and needs Thomas’ thoughts, approval and endorsement. And he’s promised Adrianne, an aspiring writer, that a coveted apprenticeship with Thomas is in the bag. She discovers that’s not exactly true, because Frank is engaged in a power struggle with Thomas that has little to do with her—and everything to do with her.
The claustrophobic country house weekend play is a sub-genre in its own right—in the last five years alone, new Humana Fest plays by Zoe Kazan (“Absalom”) and Molly Smith Metzler (“Elemeno Pea”) have also examined what happens when you sequester big personalities with family and outsiders in a comfortable little prison they can’t easily escape. There’s something about the lack of outside engagement that compels dramatic confrontation and revelation—if you remove daily chores and errands and distractions in favor of very close quarters with people who both love and resent one another, what new truths might bubble up and out?
They don’t have much to do except talk to, at, and about each other, and McDonough works the talky rhythm of the script to its best advantage. The tone in this play switches on a dime, as Frangione and McKenzie deftly trade off upper-hands in a series of delightfully uncomfortable acts of emotional warfare. Make no mistake: there is no wholly good guy and no entirely bad guy here. McDonough punctuates these moments with effective silence, allowing the dialog and its implications to sink in fully and painfully. McDonough’s commitment to clarity in emotionally complicated scripts was evident in her last production at Actors, Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” and she once again keeps the streams of recrimination, guilt, need and want sorted for the audience, though the emotional stories of the characters are anything but neat and tidy.
Playing the daughters caught in the crossfire, Forlenza and Combs are a study in contrasts, each manifesting their characters’ suffering under their respective fathers’ expectations and disappointments in compelling ways. Ellen is often the comic relief as the irritable, glammed-up investment banker who knows her father doesn’t care about her success because he can’t see himself reflected in it. Scrappy Adrianne, with her heartbreaking ambitions and undergraduate hoodie, is the heart of the play, and Combs wisely resists playing her naïvete cutely. Adrianne’s frustrated—by her inability to grasp the unwritten rules of her father’s and Thomas’s game—but she’s a bit brittle, a little grasping. She cares too much, still. And that ultimately makes her a formidable player in her own right.
Daniel Zimmerman’s rustic-chic set makes excellent and economical use of the space. In the Bingham, most of the audience looks down into the fishbowl stage, creating the intimate experience of eavesdropping, and the actors have a full circle of a room to move in. But don’t forget to look up, too—recent Bingham productions have made creative use of implied ceilings, and the angled, open-beamed rectangle suggests a sumptuous vaulted room (it’s that kind of lake house). Nice touch.
Overall, “The Delling Shore” doesn’t present huge production challenges—it’s a straight-forward, realistic, one-set, four-character piece, conditions which favor subsequent productions after the festival ends. The surprises are all character-driven, as Marks’ script pulls back layers deliberately and logically to a raw—and yet, oddly optimistic for Adrianne—ending.
“The Delling Shore” runs through the duration of the Humana Festival, which concludes April 7. WFPL will air an interview with the playwright this week.