Half Moon Bay
by John Jiler
Directed by Margarett Perry
October 3- 25, 2015
The Nylon Fusion Theatre Company
at The New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street, New York City.
Jean Goto – Pam
Ben Gougeon – Richie
Ivette Dumeng- Alicia
Brennan Taylor – Tom
Set Design: Kyu Shin
Sound Design: Andy Evan Cohen
Lighting Design: Wilburn Bonell
Costume Design: Debbi Hobson
Stage Manager: Laura Hirshberg
A man and a woman, Richie and Pam, presumably somewhere in their early thirties, that is, just at the point in life where their next successful projects will bring them to a prominent and prosperous stage in life, decide to get married. They seemed full of love and enthusiasm for one another, as well as the impending event. Their friends are full of love and enthusiasm for them, above all, Richie’s best friend and best man, Tom, a lawyer, a rather hard-nosed, cynical lawyer, and a loner. He seems perfectly likable and basically all right, but he has difficulty forming close relationships with women. He hasn’t met one yet who finds him attractive, it seems. But the story is not about him, he is there to tell the story, as a sort of chorus-participant, sometimes in dialogue with the other characters, sometimes engaging the audience directly, sometimes narrating and responding rather like a sports announcer. The story is about love. As Tom begins the play, “I want to tell you about love.” …and mainly about his friend Richie, who is a love fiend, or so it should say in his obituary, as Tom informs us: “Because that’s what drove him. Like the wind drove the old ships. He thought everything else was irrelevant.”
An architect, Richie is something of a dreamer, one who is in the process of making his mark with an ecological apartment building. Pam, as Tom tells them, “is a real human being to call him on his shit.” As a landscaper, she is also an ideal partner for Richie in a material sense, and he for her. Tom is thrilled to have been asked to be best man, “Because you two are the world champions of love!”
And that’s why we like Tom. Cynic though he is, he buys into his close friends’ happiness lock, stock, and barrel, and is overjoyed and reaffirmed to be given an ancillary part in it. Pam, is beautiful, a smart dresser, intelligent, capable, full of energy. What’s there not to like? Maybe she goes on a bit too much about her causes…, but, winningly, she admits the fault.
We get to know our characters in a restaurant, one that offers pumpkin soup, scorched zucchini, and blackened mahi-mahi as specials…and a less than competent waitress. She’s been working there less than a week and hasn’t yet learned the ropes, almost forgetting the drink orders. They assume she is from somewhere else, either Duluth or Mars, but Pam, being a nice person, introduces herself, and asks the waitress’ name—Alicia. They make gentle, not eccessively mean fun of her, and she has piqued their interest with a strange remark: “You’re flying up into the night.” Richie thinks this may be evidence that she has some Native American background. Tom’s martini, Richie’s Jameson’s, and Alicia’s merlot arrive safely, presumably more than once, and dinner as well. A memorable evening!
Tom takes us forward. The wedding took place in a monastery (not naked on a hilltop, as originally fantasized) where Tom took advantage of the occasion to inquire about vacancies. “A stern old man informed me that it was a place for the seriously devout—-and not a time-share for bitter bachelors…”
After the wedding, Pam is away and leaves Richie with an extra ticket to a Rangers game. He asks Tom, but Tom has his men’s group that night. In hindsight he laments, “But sometimes I think that if I really did love him, I would have sensed something and gone to that game with him. Because there was something about the drift in Richie. By that I mean the way a current could take him away….a current no-one else could really feel…….”
At a loose end, Richie goes back to the restaurant where they dined together. Alicia comes to his table, and Richie tries to start a conversation with her, one which he attempts to lead in quite a personal direction, as Tom comments from another space on stage. Richie all but begs Alicia to go to the game with him, but she resists. We later learn that she lives in a homeless shelter, where the doors are locked early, and the residents can get neither in nor out.
An unfortunate situation for this odd young woman. Some of us might accept it that Alicia’s not all there and head for a restaurant with a more professional staff. Richie finds her mysterious, fascinating, and in terms of pursuing a relationship with her, he is out of the gates. Alicia is always guarded and closed with Richie. She shows no attraction for him or even much friendliness. He learns that her situation is even worse. She has a baby, who has been taken away from her by an agency, suggesting that Alicia’s mental deficiencies could result from drugs. There is limited space in her mind for the pleasures of life, like hockey games, and even specificities of memory, like her own life history. She can remember where the shelter is and how to get there, and the same about her place of work. Sometimes she is sad about losing her baby; sometimes she almost indifferently accepts it as a fact of life. Alicia’s mind is almost blank, and, in terms of feelings and desires, she is almost empty. This is the key, I think, to Richie’s obsession. Alicia is a tabula rasa on which he can create his beloved himself, out of his own fantasies. In Pam he has a real companion most of us would envy, a woman who is fully drawn in—a wife with parents, a good education, a sense of humor, a profession. It’s as if, in giving himself over to love, he craves freedom from the distractions of such particulars—and the will of an equal partner. Alicia is disadvantaged, undefined, and, to his perception, weak. Richie could be drawn to the power he feels this gives him. He loves…and fails to realize that he is looking into the abyss, even leaning precariously over it, ready to plunge.
There is also a baby on the way. As he sinks deeper into his unconsummated, unrequited passion, he is still able to participate in his marriage, not even absent-mindedly, but eventually he proposes that they hire Alicia as a live-in nanny. Pam has to be reminded who she is, but immediately realizes that something is fishy. The marriage begins to fall apart. Richie settles Alicia in a place in rural Pennsylvania with her baby, which Tom has worked hard to return to her, and he wants to spend more and more time there with her. He reduces Pam, a woman who has her pride, to begging him to stay home. He goes, committed to building a fine ecological cottage by a stream for his beloved and her baby—whom she has lost again, this time to the Pennsylvania authorities. He fails to get the child back for her. He settles there to work on the house, for which she shows no enthusiasm—and lets his practice go to seed. His career in New York is over. He supports himself designing a mall near the little village where they live—as Pam notes on her last ditch visit to Richie, something ruinous for the village and against everything they have believed in. Just as the house is ready and a doting Richie is about to move them in, Alicia disappears. Richie gives up the insignificant work he had and began “driving and driving around in ever-widening circles” from Maryland to Michigan. Finally, just by “dumb luck,” he finds her working in a 7-11. She only vaguely remembers him. He tries to talk to her, to get her to come back to the cottage, but all she will do is walk him to his car, as they enjoy looking at the moon together, with no connection resulting.
Richie drives back to the cottage and sits there in loneliness until he can’t stand it any more. Finally he goes back to New York and Pam. With much begging and groveling he persuades her to take him back. The woman who once showered him with affection and couldn’t wait to get into bed with him partly forgives him, but the warmth is gone. She is brutally frank, and their final exchange in the play is chilling, with its mixture of contrition, good intentions, and bitter feelings:
Fifty-one percent of me forgives you, Richie. The other forty-nine percent wants to slit your throat and watch the blood run down the side of the building. But the odds are you’ll live a long life and be a decent father.
I’ll do my best.
I know you will.
Tom closes the play with his disillusioned views on the romance of the moon and romantics like Richie. One is a cold, hard rock. The other is a wild, dangerous beast.
When I find myself summarizing the plots of plays in reviews, I have observed that it means that the play in question is possessed of an ambiguity or complexity which is best expressed by straight description of one of its elements, whether it consists of certain characters or the action. In this case, the author, John Jiler, has enriched Half Moon Bay with a sophisticated confluence of realism and fantasy. While the characters are people we might well know around New York, and their lives, their marriage, their prosperity, their social and environmental good intentions are tangible and familiar to us, the crux of the story, Richie’s infatuation with an uneducated woman who is intellectually, morally, and emotionally dead—or at least blank—, leads us into Richie’s dream world, which is perfumed with an atmosphere wafted over from Pelléas and Mélisande, with hints of Symbolism as well. However, this strange moonlit world is one that can be entered by a lawyer, and he can do things there. Buildings can also be built there, not only a romantic little cottage, but a mall, complete with a Home Depot, a Wendy’s and a Starbuck’s, and a mysteriously addled young women can make a living selling coffee and doughnuts. A more direct intertextual stream, however, might be Ibsen’s, The Master Builder, with its mysterious young woman from the protagonist’s past, Hilde Wangel. Richie is even an architect. However, Richie never falls from the roof of the mall he’s building or drowns in the brook by the cottage. He lives on with the intention of doing his best to fulfill his responsibilities, probably with something less than a 49% chance of having his throat cut by Pam, a strong woman who has better things to than sit in prison for the rest of her life. With time the couple might even build a better relationship than before. Nonetheless I felt the play as a tragedy. Richie’s self-indulgent behavior killed the early, innocent romance of his marriage, itself, a sort of fantasy, but a benevolent and contructive one, pouring out of Pam’s uninhibited love and sexual desire. And he has wounded the beautiful, admirable, strong creature who agreed to be his wife, and, whatever happens, this kind of wound never heals entirely.
In his script (mentored by John Patrick Shanley), John Jiler (see also my review of his solo play, Ripe) leads us from unease, to dread, to anger, to sorrow and terror with the sure hand of the seasoned playwright, novelist, and former actor that he is. His experience and sophistication also give him the power to shift his perspective from the everyday to the dream-like, Beckettian subconscious opened up by this dispossessed waitress, as she leads the young architect into a world in which he is deprived, almost as a rite of passage, of his career, the love of his wife, his skills, and his identity. Jiler gives his characters’ language, while remaining mostly within the scope of the colloquial, a literary power, disturbed only by Alicia’s weird poetic flights into vacuity and actually made comforting by the foursquare four-letter words Pam and Tom use to express their feelings about Richie’s actions. The are comforting because they reaffirm our own feelings about him.
The strength, complexity, and subtlety of the script invite a variety of treatments. The particular approach of director Margarett Perry and her outstanding cast, all brought together by the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, served the play brilliantly. Perry’s deft handling and the various spaces created by Wilburn Bonell’s lighting supported the interaction of Jiler’s multiple realities in a way that both painted them with a broad poetic brush and clarified them. Perry’s decision to eliminate almost all props enhanced the dream-like qualities of the play. For example, when Alicia serves the others in the restaurant, her hands are empty. Debbi Hobson’s costumes—Tom’s shiny suit, Richie’s dorky camel-hair jacket (which surely would evoke a self-satisfied sneer from a superstarchitect like Jefe Angledottir!), Pam’s elegant, flowing attire—matched the characters and avoided clichés.
Ben Gougeon‘s Richie underplayed the dreamy, romantic qualities ascribed to Richie to the point that he seemed like an ordinary practical person who enjoys Irish whisky and hockey games and dresses in whatever he finds in the thrift store who became possessed by a passion that seethed deep within him, awakened by a strange, damaged girl of limited consciousness. There is also an idealistic strain in him which was likewise awakened and led by Pam, who herself is more awake, active, and present the he is. Brennan Taylor, an actor of impressive skill and resourcefulness, gave an assured, memorable performance as Tom, stressing his cold, cynical side—for the better, since his words and actions testified to his inner humanity and sympathy. Ivette Dumeng so successfully conveyed Alicia’s strangeness with a combination of ordinariness and insane disconnection that she seemed real, as if one encountered her on the subway—or waiting on tables in a restaurant. Jean Goto‘s Pam was brilliant, encompassing the character’s strength, energy and capableness as well as her irritating qualities as a relentless do-gooder, her loving desire for her husband, her wounded desperation, and her cold ferocity at the end. Her use of her voice and of wide-swinging movement, enabled and enhanced by her loose costumes, were beyond impressive. Her movements were so expressive—artful and meaningful enough to work in a pantomime—gave me the idea that she must have studied Butoh or some similar gestural theater. That is not the case, but it turns out that she is a fencing master.
The highest praise for all concerned in this outstanding play and production.