Scaring the Fish

An undercooked but overblown psychological drama whose psychology and melodrama seem equally contrived, "Scaring the Fish" starts out looking like a Pinteresque version of "Deliverance," then winds up wading thigh-deep into the swampy waters of male sensitivity seminars. From either end, it's a vacation from hell.

With:
Cast: David Arrow (Chris), Rob Sedgwick (Dennis), Lou Sumrall (Gene).

An undercooked but overblown psychological drama whose psychology and melodrama seem equally contrived, “Scaring the Fish” starts out looking like a Pinteresque version of “Deliverance,” then winds up wading thigh-deep into the swampy waters of male sensitivity seminars. From either end, it’s a vacation from hell.

The trip lasts just 90 minutes in real time, and forcing the characters from Point A to the cathartic Point Z is chief among author Benjamin Bettenbender’s credulity-stretching gambits. Nerdish Chris (David Arrow) is already waiting at a remote lakeside New Hampshire locale when bullying, jockish supervisor Dennis (Rob Sedgwick) arrives. Both soon realize they’ve been tricked into attending this alleged “department fishing trip” by co-worker Gene (Lou Sumrall); no one else was invited. That bodes ill, since Gene and Dennis have loathed one another since the latter abruptly married the former’s girlfriend.

Once Gene turns up, he admits the truth, claiming he seeks only to “clear the air” — with Chris presumably present to referee. The planned “real guy-talk” does not go well, however. In a flash, poor Chris is eating dirt while the others disgorge Terrible Secrets at gunpoint.

But the tensions seem bogus. Why did absent, fought-over femme Carol leave faithful, distraught Gene for blowhard Dennis (already a onetime marital loser) in the first place? It’s no surprise when one character emerges victorious, even if all the true confessions fail to explain motivations.

Worse, Chris, who hitherto plays a variant on the stock “You guys stop it now!” role, caps matters by delivering a long, mawkish chronicle of his own tragically lost relationship. The moral: Men, get in touch with your (nicer) feelings, find love and hold it dear. Pat situations and characters render that lesson banal.

Director Michael Warren Powell has his actors sweating and hyperventilating to beat the band. The cast is accomplished, but the text doesn’t sustain such forced intensity. Richard S. Brown’s handsome, abstract woodsy set is the most notable tech contribution.

Scaring the Fish

Production: SAN FRANCISCO A Magic Theater presentation of the LAB production of a drama in one act by Benjamin Bettenbender. Directed by Michael Warren Powell.

Crew: Sets, Richard S. Brown; costumes, Sara Sobel; lighting, David Welle; stage manager, Randy Lawson. Opened July 16, 1996, at the Magic TheaterSouthside. Reviewed July 18; 160 seats; $ 24 top. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

With: Cast: David Arrow (Chris), Rob Sedgwick (Dennis), Lou Sumrall (Gene).

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