It takes a thief

The Dead Sea

By Mark Robertson
Directed by Leah Vesonder
304 on 5 Productions/FringeNYC
Linhart Theater at 440 Studios
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Arlene McKanic

The Dead Sea, the puzzling play by Mark Robertson, begins with a burglary. It's close to Christmas and a young man in a ski mask steals into a rundown living room and starts pilfering the presents under the tree. He's caught when he tries to steal the wallet of another young man sleeping on the sofa. It turns out that the burglar is his victim's brother, and he's been gone from the family for nearly four years. Why on earth would he break into his own home and try to steal Christmas presents? And why now? These are two of many unanswered questions posed by the play, none of which are answered to any satisfaction.

What can be made out is that the play tries to be about the strength of familial love. Caleb, the burglar, has come home to his recently widowed father, Paul, and his two brothers, Corey the perpetual student and Jake, who's separated from his wife and little girl. Caleb fled after a violent scene with Paul that seems to have been some kind of abreaction to the mother's diagnosis of cancer, but it's soon apparent that Caleb believes that Paul's never liked him anyway and that ghastly night was the culmination of years of tension. As to where Caleb's been all this time, his answer seems to be everywhere and nowhere. There may or may not have been a young woman with whom he used to jump into puddles and crash weddings. He may or may not have been in a movie, or tried to drown himself in the Dead Sea. Finally, Caleb may or may not be a murderer. This causes the three other men to go into crisis mode, and briefly discuss Sartre, Hitler, and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz before the subject is swept under the dirty living-room rug.

The play's difficulty is that Robertson doesn't get to the heart of matters. The only thing he seems sure of is that these lonely, womanless men love each other, which is nice, but when a play hints that one of the characters is a murderer (and a psychopath in general) more than protestations of love are needed. Fortunately, the acting kept the play interesting. Nick Amick, Hayden Roush, and Elias Stimac were all good as Corey, Jake and Paul, though they could all have used more depth. Stimac's character seemed especially unpulled-together; at one moment he was almost maternally tender and the next he was demanding respect from his grown boys like a drill sergeant. But this was the fault of the writing.

Robertson, though, was brilliant as Caleb. His task was the hardest, certainly. He needed to have the audience on his side and be convincingly crazy at the same time. He had to recite paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness monolog, which is daunting (even if, in this case, the actor wrote the monologs himself). At the end Robertson gave the impression not of murderousness but of hollowness, and deep, aching grief. It was a riveting performance.

Leah Vesonder directed the play competently, and covered the space on the stage well. Nicholas J. Marmo's lighting was simple -- fade ins and fade outs -- but sometimes he allowed nothing to be lit on stage but the Christmas tree, or at one point, the tiny red light on a boom box. Matt Heffernan cleverly useed the music of Sigur Ros, Todd Landau and The Cinematic Underground in his sound design.

The Dead Sea brings up interesting themes, but doesn't tap them as deeply as it might, which gives the play an unfinished feeling. Some revision should help it.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Arlene McKanic