The Sea Concerto is ostensibly about a musician. Appropriately, playwright August Schulenburg’s new play, directed poetically by Heather Cohn and Kelly O’Donnell and produced by the Flux Theatre Ensemble, resembles a fully realized multi-movement work of classical music, with primary and secondary themes introduced and revisited, smoothly natural pacing (until the end), and passages of emotional counterpoint both comic and tragic. A deeply personal story of love, weakness, and venality, the play addresses wider issues too, often with penetrating clarity.
Lynnie, the narrator, embodies the principal theme of trying to find one’s voice, a way to tell the stories of one’s life, in a world that doesn’t care, or care enough. The adult Lynnie is a poet, her father Eric a gifted jazz trumpeter. But as it does so often in drama (and fiction), artistic creativity stands in for the plain act of making a mark in the world, of making one’s presence and value known.
Lynnie grows up in a family of extremes. Her gruff grandfather dominates Act I as he dominates the family, managing a real estate mini-empire on the Massachusetts coast, regaling his kin with tales of piloting John F. Kennedy to secret trysts, tyrannizing his daughters Penny and Janet and especially their respective husbands, Eric and Jimbo, whom he’s eyeing as potential inheritors of the family business.
While Jimbo is a conniving if hilarious rascal, Eric agonizes over the conflict between his artistically successful but financially limited music career and pressure from Jimbo and Chappie to take an increasing role in the business.
It’s Eric’s artistic temperament, not his being a black man married into a white family, that makes it easier for Chappie to favor the ruthless Jimbo. But Eric’s refrain, that he doesn’t belong “here” or “anywhere,” takes on a different meaning for his daughter Lynnie, who as she grows into an independent teenager feels acutely out of place as a person of mixed race.
Eric and Penny’s marriage is as complicated as Jimbo and Janet’s is exaggeratedly sugar-sweet, but within both relationships love lurks, for better or worse. The whole cast sensitively conveys the dynamics of a family of extremes. Most of the action takes place on the back deck of Chappie’s seaside house, where light and sound effects richly convey times and tides. To Jimbo, a gorgeous sunset is a woman to be ravished. To Chappie, the air above is the element that gives life its meaning. To Lynnie-as-narrator, stones she drops in a pile on the sand signify the passing years. The sand is also a place for Eric to symbolically bury his music career – until a ritual resurrection in an overlong coda.
Posing Lynnie as a first-person young-adult narrator, separated physically from most of the action and recalling the mushrooming family crisis from the vantage point of her childhood, could have been gimmicky. The carefully shaded script and Morgan McGuire’s bravura performance combine to make it both an effective framing device and a compelling character study in its own right. Likewise, Jimbo might have been cartoonish, with his lovey-dovey affection for Janet and his clumsy obfuscation when caught in a deception. But Greg Oliver Bodine fires him up with an only slightly larger-than-life realism.
It is, in fact, the interplay between the realistic dialogue and believable characters on the one hand, and the fanciful staging and stylized presentation on the other, that makes The Sea Sonata original and persuasive.
Fueling that vitality are strong performances all around, centered loudly by John Lenartz as Chappie, quietly by Corey Allen as Eric, and poetically by McGuire’s Lynnie. Emily Hartford as the self-centered and intellectual Penny and Alisha Spielmann as the outwardly bland but inwardly resourceful Janet powerfully dramatize the troubled relationship between the sisters.
The only letdown comes at the dénouement. After Lynnie’s brilliantly telescoped recounting of her growing into adulthood after the dramatic crisis, one feels the conductor has laid down her baton. To keep the momentum going after that, the play needs a more concise way to finally bring the narrative circle to a close.
This world premiere production of The Sea Concerto will be remembered as one of the year’s off-off-Broadway triumphs. It runs at A.R.T./New York Theatres until May 19. Visit the website for tickets and information about Flux’s innovative Open Book and Living Tickets initiatives.