A.C.T.’s ‘Seascape’ leaves audience treading in a sea of unanswered questions

Two older people lie on the sand, in fear, crouching away from a green, large, threatening creature.
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On Jan. 30, the American Conservatory Theater opened its first public performance of Edward Albee’s “Seascape.” The play follows a retired married couple Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) as their seemingly relaxing vacation on the beach gets turned upside down.

The set of “Seascape” is an unmistakable extravaganza. Wispy emerald-colored grass and weeds peek out from the curves of the rolling sand dunes. Although there are no set changes, the scenery is beyond delightful to look at for the entire show.

Unfortunately, the story behind the visual display itself is unable to meet the exuberance of the set. To put it simply, the play lacks a cohesive dramatic plot. Typically in theater, the absence of plot would not necessarily mean that the play lacks substance, diligence or thought. There are plenty of renowned and critically-acclaimed plays that do not focus much on plot development. However, “Seascape” fails to offer deep character study or a general coherence in the script, and instead presents audiences with a hollow and loose story.

Nancy and Charlie each have a monologue that allows the audience to take a glimpse into what kind of life they lived. However, for monologues that are supposed to reveal the effect of events on their psyche, their windows are way too small for the audience to get a good look. Charlie reminisces about his childhood and his love for water. His description of sinking to the bottom of the sea to witness rippling sunlight and flowing aloe above is beautiful enough to peak the audience’s interest. Charlie abruptly cuts this memory off to adamantly say that he will no longer do such activities — much to the dismay of Nancy. This quick succession leaves the audience wondering, “Why?”

Unfortunately, there is no explanation for this sort of plot deviance throughout the rest of the play. An account of trauma, perhaps a near-death experience or reasonable back story never weaves its way through to the script, and there are no subtleties or verisimilitude of any kind. The description of the gorgeous water thus sinks to the bottom of Charlie’s characterization, and is basically useless. Although beautiful, the monologue’s purpose is nowhere to be found. The audience is left to just assume that Charlie is simply a scrooge who forgot how to have any fun — a reasonable assumption considering his main conflict with Nancy and her desire to travel. Curiously, the monologue gives off the general sense that Charlie is simply misunderstood yet the play makes no efforts to correct the misconceptions.

Similarly, Nancy delivers a speech about the early years of their marriage. She confesses to Charlie that she suspected he had an affair at one point. There was apparently a conflict between the two — as she mentions to Charlie’s turned back in bed — but yet again, it remains frustratingly muddled and unclear. If the audience were let in even on a small detail about the nature of their conflict, it could possibly help us discern whether Nancy was perceptive or simply paranoid. Perhaps the lack of explanation is due to the fact that marital conflicts are particularly private. Further talk is unnecessary since Nancy and Charlie fully understand what happened between them. However, overall, the play withholds too much critical information about the characters for the audience to empathize or even remotely relate to them.

In the show’s second act, Nancy and Charlie meet Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Leslie (Seann Gallagher), a couple of human-sized lizards. The latter couple are able to speak English despite the fact that they are from the sea and they both walk upright on two legs. They seem to be the very first of their kind that Nancy and Charlie witness. The human couple’s actions toward Sarah and Leslie near the end of the play are rather strange and questionable. Charlie starts to tell Sarah about the horrible events that couples go through on land such as abandonment. This concept seems foreign to Sarah since she and Leslie have mated for life much like many animal species. In addition to the empty plot, the characters express random acts out of spite: Charlie causes Sarah to cry without any explanation. Furthermore, when Leslie and Sarah decide to go back to the sea, Nancy starts to shed tears. This action is quite puzzling because Nancy could not possibly have an idea as to which environment is better for these strangers.

“Seascape” is an extraordinarily bizarre and surreal journey: It could have truly been an after-death hallucination as Charlie hypothesized. Unfortunately, its esotericism and unconventionality fail to make up for the many gaping holes in characterization.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected]g.