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Theatre Review: "A Delicate Ship" at Cincinnati Playhouse

Michael Haney lends his deft directorial hand to world premiere “A Delicate Ship” by Anna Ziegler. A romantic drama about a trio of thirtysomethings, Haney muses that “Ship” is told in threes: “It’s inspired by a poem (Auden) about a painting (Bruegel) about a myth (Icarus) and it’s told in a conversation that has its characters telling the past, present and future.”
 
Primarily a memory play, the past is a life-changing Christmas Eve. Sarah and Sam are lovers happily discovering each other when the doorbell rings and surprise – it’s Sarah’s BFF Nate, who clearly wants a different relationship and wants to muscle out the new boyfriend.
 
I caught a preview performance and ever since my mind has been captured not by the play but what the play might mean in the trajectory of American theatre. 
 
It fits tightly with trends I saw earlier this month at the Humana Festival, not necessarily good ones for lifelong theatre-goers but probably having great appeal for audiences who grew up on television and the Internet and have graduated to social media as a primary means of connecting.
 
“A Delicate Ship” at 75 minutes feels long and tedious. Is it because abbreviation is natural for many incoming playwrights or is a calculation that their audiences have a limited attention span? I would argue that while everybody likes to get home at a reasonable hour – better to write a two-act good play that sweep people up and make them forget about time than a one-act indifferent one in which we’re all too aware of the minutes ticking away.
 
The best thing about “Ship” is the artful way it uses changing time to tell its story – but it’s only the high concept that makes that story more than a cliché
 
Sarah, Sam and Nate are people you’d expect to run across in the course of your everyday life. They’re not memorable -- how could they be, we never get to know them. Sarah is immature and self-absorbed, Nate is so irritating you wonder why she didn’t drop him long ago. 
 
Because Ziegler is in a hurry, her short-cuts include telling the audience information rather than inviting us on a journey of discovery, which takes a little longer. The result is that we’re not emotionally invested for good or ill and it’s hard to care what happens to them.
 
As always Haney is an actor’s director and his cast perform with enormous conviction – no easy task – and with a musical rhythm. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ziegler was most interested in making poetry and art of her theme in short story form: we are all delicate ships lonely and lost on the unknown and unfriendly sea of life, and the people who could help us with a GPS are worrying about their own navigating.
 
“Ship” is chockfull of things that I find irritating to inexcusable in scripts. At the top of the list:
 
The first-person narration seems lazy, and I’ve seen so much of it lately that I’m especially touchy. Or maybe it’s that Sarah isn’t a particularly good guide. She introduces us to herself and Sam and Nate with poetic extravagance but her perceptions don’t seem to have much to do with reality.
 
And everybody stays in the room for no better reason than the playwright needs them to. Rational people would have been long gone. (And no matter how much Sam threatens, he stays put.)
 
On the drive home I was already pondering where live theatre will be in 10 years if “Ship” represents the future, and for no small price (my two tickets were $95, and add a few bucks for parking.) (Note: there are some $30 tickets for every Playhouse performance.)
 
ALERT: Adult language and mature content. Contact the box office with questions and for additional information.
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN contributor
 
Photo:  Sam (Ben Diskant, left) sings to his girlfriend Sarah (Janie Brookshire) as Sarah’s best friend Nate (Karl Miller) listens in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s world-premiere production of A Delicate Ship, which runs through April 20 in the Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre.