‘Washed Up on the Potomac’ leaves audience in murky waters

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Jessica Palopoli/Courtesy

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The set of San Francisco Playhouse’s “Washed Up on the Potomac,” currently playing at Custom Made Theatre through September 8, was arranged with deliberate nonchalance. Sticky notes were randomly dispersed across the back wall and the desks were artfully mismatched, as though the place had been thrown together hastily. Overall, it perfectly resembled the atmosphere of a distressed basement in an overused office building. There was clearly an extreme attention to detail. This particularity was due to the fact that the play is tremendously personal.

The play centers on a proofreading office and its characters’ evolution and development after the disappearance of their co-worker Joyce. According to a press release, “Washed Up on the Potomac” was inspired by the playwright Lynn Rosen’s personal experience in a proofreading office and her discovery that a high school acquaintance had washed up on the Potomac River. As a result of its intensely personal nature, the message of the play was difficult to discern. Although the play explores how people react to death and how they realize the significance of living actively, this theme of impending mortality is muddled and unclear.

“Washed Up on the Potomac” was initially a one-act play. Perhaps the extension of it into a full-length production was the cause of its general emptiness. Although the humor was clever and appreciated, it was fleeting and forgettable, resulting in a series of laughs that padded the runtime but delivered neither gravity nor significance.

The structure of the play was unconventional but not successfully so. There was barely any plot, just banter between the characters until a rather abrupt shove into the climax, in which a fight escalates between Sherri (Melissa Quine) and Kate (Jessica Bates). The passage of time was indicated by a monotonous ticking of a clock that was synchronized with the actors’ movements and doubled as a beat change. Even the resolution of the play, when Sherri delivers a brief closing monologue, seemed rushed and underdeveloped. Overall, the play was overexerted, stretched too thin.

Despite the play’s title, the character of Joyce, whose body supposedly washed up on the Potomac, was glossed over. Further exploration of Joyce’s story and circumstances would have given this play much more meat. The entire story centers on the specific, unfortunate and sudden death of Joyce, yet the event only makes a cameo appearance. This narrative choice resulted in a lack of audience identification with the emotional themes of the play. Perhaps grazing just the tip of this enormous iceberg added to the sense of mystery in the play, but it ultimately was far too overshadowed and ended up feeling barely significant. As a result, the play was unable to convey its most essential points.

“Washed Up on the Potomac” was indeed an extensive and comedic character study. The depth and peculiarity of the characters and their transformations were remarkable to witness. Unfortunately, the hollow plot failed to support the excitement that the actors brought to the stage. Thus, the play in its entirety served up lukewarm emotions. An enjoyable journey for sure, but one that left the audience wondering why they should care about its destination.

“Washed Up on the Potomac” is playing at Custom Made Theatre through September 8.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].