Review: ‘Laura and the Sea’

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble,
5779 N. Ridge Ave.
When: through Dec. 8
Tickets: $38
Phone: 773-334-7728

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Sometimes the idea of a play is more interesting than the actuality. That’s the case with Kate Tarker’s “Laura and the Sea,” at least in its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.

New York playwright Tarker’s premise is that people who work in offices tend not to know their colleagues very well, if at all, even though they spend much of their time together. She mixes this with an examination of depression, though she focuses on the consequences rather than the causes.

Subtitled “An Unhappy Comedy,” the play is set in 2011 in the Manhattan offices of a small travel agency in the wake of a Labor Day company outing on the water that ended with the suicide of Laura, generally regarded as one of the top travel agents of her generation. A memorial blog is set up at the instigation of new office manager Annie, but the posts, many of them contributed reluctantly, soon make it apparent that her co-workers didn’t even know basic things about Laura like her favorite color, much less why—or even that—she was depressed.

What makes the 90-minute work unusual is not the subject matter but the structure. Tarker sets it up so that all the dialogue consists of the blog posts, though some of them are flashbacks to the day of the outing and each participant’s recollections of what happened, though Annie instructs them not to dwell on the details of the suicide. And even though Laura is dead, she appears as a lively presence on stage as the recollections of the others unfold.

When the employees and their boss are in the office and not posting on the blog, their interactions and conversations are all mimed with lots of gestures, but nothing is spoken. They range from arguments seen in silhouette behind the wall that forms the boss’ office to a mini basketball game with an undersized ball and hoop.

Figuring out what’s going on is difficult, especially at first, and all the flashbacks add to the confusion and sense of dislocation and disjointedness. So does the staging by director Devon de Mayo. The space is small, and Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design consists of two pairs of desks flanking a mast protruding from the floor with a sail that Annie unfurls at the beginning and takes down at the end. In addition, the characters spin it around at various times to get past or indicate a change of scene. A few images are projected onto the sail (projections by Anthony Churchill), but the blog posts are projected onto the wall behind it, so most of the audience can’t see them well.

The little we can glean from all the back and forth consists of fairly typical office politics, and we don’t learn enough about the characters to become involved with them. Annie’s (Adithi Chandrashekar) dedication to starting the blog stems from personal experience, but she ultimately becomes disillusioned with it after visiting Laura’s grave. Joe (Jordan Arredondo), Laura’s young assistant, was in love with her, but she—who called aging “a paper cut to the soul” – pushed him away. Stan (Alex Gilmor) had too many issues with his own relationships to pay attention to hers. And Mary (Paula Ramirez) was too self-absorbed and preoccupied with her own appearance and advancement to pay more than lip service to her colleague.

Arguably most damaging of all, the boss, Jack (Mark Ulrich), is a jerk who had an affair with Laura but has moved on to others. His vision for the travel agency epitomizes the differences between them. He sees the future as travel to Mars, while Laura wants clients to appreciate what’s in their own backyard.  The funniest line in the play to me is the trip she devised to punish a customer for not caring.

In fact, though we only get bits and pieces that sometimes contradict each other, Laura is the most engaging character, thanks partly to Tara Mallen’s well-rounded performance. We see the bravura and sharp sense of humor that are her defenses, as well as the vulnerability they hide, not all that successfully. Her world-weariness and sadness also come through, though the way her suicide is portrayed here it seems to be fueled by too much alcohol (and maybe drugs) as much as anything else. Given the differing perspectives of the others, there’s even a slight hint that she may have gone overboard by accident.

I don’t know whether any ambiguity was intended, but I do know that “Laura and the Sea” left me less than satisfied. Tarker’s concept is intriguing, but the choppy style becomes as boring as….well, a lot of blog posts.