Impediments define “Sucker Fish Messiah,” a new play by Ryan Michael Teller receiving its world premiere at Cocteau Rep. The most obvious may be the mental impediment of Len (Darren Ryan), a borderline psychotic salesman sharing an apartment and a fractious relationship with his younger brother, Paul (Shannon Jones). However, the most destructive are the barricades that author, cast and director place between the audience and the material.
Teller attempts the current standard for angry young playwriting, exploring the distance between people so wounded that their expressions of love are cynical and cruel. Len and Paul live at each other’s throats, blaming each other for both childhood traumas and current woes. Yet these men are too reliant on their harmful dynamic to escape it.
If Teller allowed the brothers to confront their destructive dependency, the play might have an explosion or two. But he reroutes their hostility through Emily (Melanie Hopkins), Paul’s girlfriend, and Clare (Jennifer Sanders), Len’s ex-wife.
Rather than fight directly, the boys spar by sleeping with — or trying to sleep with — each other’s girls. Paul clarifies their motives when Clare asks why he’s seducing her. “I just want to hurt him,” he says.
Unfortunately, this leaves the female characters as passive objects to be passed between the protagonists. Teller gives them little to do beyond fielding sexual advances, yet he keeps them onstage.
Faced with two constant presences that serve only one function, his writing gets stuck repeating the same sexual power games instead of letting Paul and Len’s interactions deepen. Stagnancy ensues.
The male perfs prove as inert as the script. Ryan — eyes bulging, limbs jerking in quick little bursts — almost parodies insanity. Jones, meanwhile, starts Paul at the peak of exasperation and never wavers from his abrasive choice.
Conversely, Taylor Brooks’ direction suffers from a lack of consistency. Most flexible is his use of Matthew Allar’s cheap-looking apartment set. Take the bedroom that sits upstage, with no wall or door to separate it from the living room. Sometimes it seems to be Len’s room and sometimes Paul’s, though both also enter from some offstage boudoir.
Even more puzzling, the onstage bedroom reads as both an open-air suite and a standard room with a door. Characters generally enter and exit the space wherever they choose, but sometimes they pantomime knocking on an invisible doorway. Apparently, these things only spring up when they’re convenient.
With no sense of space, the production lacks coherent shape, joining the acting and writing as another element to push us away from the story being told.