SAN DIEGO -- We're far from any sea or any tranquillity in Howard Korder's "Sea of Tranquility," running through Feb. 10 at the Old Globe Theatre. Seen Saturday, this turbulent, two-act, 14-character psychodrama asks provocative questions about our ability to change for the better or escape the past even by running away and starting over.
The very first line ("How was Hanukkah?") sets off an uproar, and we're quickly plunged into a number of disintegrating relationships: husband and wife, mother and child, therapist and patient, scholar and research assistant. The environment is disintegrating too from long-buried secrets that poison past and present.
An award-winning playwright-in-residence at the Old Globe, Korder is perhaps best known in Southern California for "Search and Destroy" (South Coast Repertory, 1990) and telecasts of his "Lip Service" (HBO, 1988), "The Passion of Ayn Rand" (Showtime, 1999) and "Stealing Sinatra" (Showtime, 2004). He's brilliant at rapid-fire contemporary dialogue that often reveals more about the speakers than they'd like, and that talent serves him strongly here in a story about a psychologist with too much on his plate.
Ben (Ted Koch) and his wife, Nessa (Erika Rolfsrud), have moved from Connecticut to Santa Fe, N.M., where their relationship begins to fall apart as disastrously as their picturesque 70-year-old adobe house. Nessa is working with an academic on a book exploring the controversial theory that the Anasazi cliff-dwellers of the American Southwest ate their enemies -- and another kind of cannibalism pervades Ben's therapy sessions as his patients eat one another alive.
We've met some of these people before (the young Jewish Nazi, for example), and Korder gives too many of them florid confessional arias that seem shortcuts to characterization. However, director Michael Bloom and the cast turn these speeches into star turns -- whether it's Nike Doukas scalding the stage with corrosive fury as a mother who hates her son or Ned Schmidtke playing two utterly different sleazeballs with the same perfect control.
Schmidtke also gets the biggest laugh with a great joke about academic tenure, and this is a play full of jokes -- gallows humor in many cases, deliberately undercutting the serious themes being explored. Indeed, sometimes you wonder whether the character closest to Korder's heart is Randy (Jeffrey Kuhn), a sitcom writer intent on becoming very, very profound. That's because this play keeps coming at you with the speed and verbal dexterity of a sitcom, even as we see Nessa sickening from some mysterious illness and Ben torn apart by a combination of guilt and ethical conflict.
Rolfsrud makes Nessa's decay palpable and horrifying, while Koch deftly traces his character's eroding confidence. Rosina Reynolds and Carlos Acuna are adroitly double cast in nice/nasty roles, and four of their colleagues belong to the Old Globe/University of San Diego MFA program.
They're all excellent, and Bloom keeps the performance as a whole sharply entertaining. But there's the question of whether we believe any of it except for Rolfsrud. We're too aware of Korder pulling the strings, introducing plot complications and a startling coincidence involving the ownership of the house as structural strategies: sudden transitions from light to dark or, if you like, Korder-as-Randy straining to transcend his sitcom ID. "Sea of Tranquility" has plenty of substance to recommend it, but its glib style belongs to Randy, body and soul.
Scott Bradley's scenic units roll in and out, arise and descend, revolve and compress: a show in themselves, and other technical credits are also first rate.
'Sea of Tranquility'
Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 10
Price: $29 to $62
Contact: (619) 23-GLOBE or www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes