Theatre Review: ‘The Delling Shore’ at the Humana Festival

Bruce McKenzie as Frank, Catherine Combs as Adrianne, Meredith Forlenza as Ellen, and Jim Frangione as Thomas. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“The Delling Shore” by Sam Marks
Directed by Meredith McDonough
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Eminent novelist Thomas Wright has invited fellow writer Frank Bay and his daughter Adrianne to stay the weekend at his country house.  From the moment the Bays arrive, though, Thomas and his daughter Ellen are out to get them.  The shared love of books that should unite these characters instead becomes a battleground where words become weapons.”

Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age, but I think I’ve really seen my quota of acerbic comedy/dramas about dysfunctional middle class (and above) New Yorkers in the arts slicing and dicing each other and agonizing over their failures to make the Big Time.  In a nation slowly sliding into third-world status, with millions of citizens facing unemployment, underemployment, and/or crippling debt, these concerns are looking increasingly trivial.

I could also do without plays that use a parlor game as the means to bring out Big Truths about the characters, but that’s probably just me being a curmudgeon.

I understand that struggling artists are of great interest to folks like playwright Marks, who grew up in the theatre and, according to Kathryn Zukaitis’s biographical sketch in the press kit, “is intimately acquainted with the risks and rewards of pursuing a career in the arts.”  But in order for their struggles to matter to the rest of us, the characters have to be something more than just bundles of ambition and resentment.  The father/daughter teams in “Delling Shore” just don’t pass that test.

Frank starts off with a chip on his shoulder that would make Atlas shrug and only becomes more abrasive as the evening progresses.  Adrianne is so tightly wound from the moment she walks on stage that she’s ready to snap (and eventually does).  Thomas is unprincipled and arrogant, and his daughter Ellen seems more interested in clubbing than anything else.  It’s an indication of how unpleasant and ultimately uninteresting these characters are that Ellen eventually turns out to be the most fully realized of the lot.

That’s not to say that there aren’t laughs and some decent dramatic tension created during the eighty very long minutes of “The Delling Shore”.  It’s just that they’re not enough to compensate for having to spend time with a quartet that you wouldn’t invite to your house on a bet.  Worse yet, the play starts at such a high pitch of hostility that there’s ultimately nowhere for it to go without tipping into absurdity—which it eventually does, in a thoroughly unbelievable scene between Frank and Ellen towards the end.

The best things about “The Delling Shore”, in my view, are Daniel Zimmerman’s strikingly realistic set and the solid work by the actors.  Catherine Combs’s Adrianne is a bundle of nervous tics from the get-go, tipping us off that she’s not as collected as she seems.  Meredith Forlenza nicely manages Ellen’s transition from superficial to sympathetic.  Bruce McKenzie is the very picture of resentment and Jim Frangione’s smug complacency is just right for Thomas.

Meredith McDonough’s direction mostly serves the playwright well, although I think she might have found ways to dial down the intensity a bit early on.

Some years ago Scott Adams authored a Sunday “Dilbert” strip titled “Seven Habits of Highly Defective People”.  I won’t say that these characters have them all, but they have plenty and (to quote The Bard), “’tis enough, ‘twill serve.”