The Ice-Breaker

There's no issue of wider or greater interest on the contemporary table than global warming. Ergo, sooner or later someone will find a means of lashing it to powerful stage drama. That shotgun marriage doesn't quite come off in "The Ice-Breaker," although David Rambo's play is still the best of this year's disappointing "Hot House" trio of new works at the Magic.

Unless world war manages to render it irrelevant, there’s no issue of wider or greater interest on the contemporary table than global warming. Ergo, sooner or later someone will find a means of lashing it to powerful stage drama. That shotgun marriage doesn’t quite come off in “The Ice-Breaker,” although David Rambo’s play is still the best of this year’s disappointing “Hot House” trio of new works at the Magic. As part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life Project, the “rolling world premiere” is scheduled for runs at Tucson’s Borderlands and Watertown, Mass.’, New Repertory Theater.

The mix of human and scientific interest, comedy and drama, mystery and romance Rambo has cooked up here has audience appeal, combining edifying discourse with good old-fashioned romance. But those two primary elements never seem particularly necessary to each other, beyond setting up the contrived situation the play depends upon.

That is the abrupt, uninvited, initially unwelcome arrival of graduate student Sonia Milan (Blake Lindsley) on the doorstep of reclusive Dr. Lawrence Blanchard (Charles Shaw Robinson), a once-esteemed if controversial paleogeologist who dropped off the face of the academic world 12 years ago.

She’s taken great pains to track down this mentor-in-absentia — having devoured everything he ever wrote — and expects him to be as excited as she is. She wants more, too: His input on the phone-book sized thesis paper that “takes further” some of his own erstwhile theories, and as a result has been deemed “unpublishable crap” by the thesis adviser/lover who just happened to be Blanchard’s professional rival way back when.

But one look at the dank, wine-bottle-strewn interior of Lawrence’s Arizona home (on a desert landscape as far removed as possible from the glacial regions he once frequented) ought to clue her to his complete shutoff from all past accomplishments — and human society in general. The reasons for that withdrawal emerge gradually, if predictably, with embittering professional back-stabbing and a personal tragedy having led to his naked freakout on Antarctic ice. Since then, he’s wanted nothing but solitude.

Robinson does a fine job making Lawrence’s oddness, brilliance and vulnerability credible as well as interesting (he was even better some years ago as that quintessential self-loathing academe, Butley). But as soon as the script has established the character’s hermitry, it decides he’s only been waiting for Miss Right (or perhaps anybody) to walk in the door.

Beyond the fact that professor-pupil romance is as hackneyed in fiction as it is vaguely distasteful in real life, there’s no reason these two should click beyond mere plot convenience. Rambo and Lindsley make Sonia a virtual cornucopia of flashing red lights, with her quick-changing aggression, guilt-tripping, nosiness and neediness. (Not to mention the annoyingly cute tendency to append embarrassing statements with apologetic third-person ones such as, “She said, cringing at her hubris.”) These two people don’t need each other — they just need to get out more, like to see a therapist.

The author uses glaciers as both metaphor and literal subject. Lawrence’s work on climate history, particularly glacial ice cores, has led Sonia to hypothesize that global warming might precede a new major ice age. But for all the dialogue space it occupies, this and related subjects never feel germane to the character drama — it’s window dressing, albeit of an informative and enjoyable kind.

It’s a tribute to the author’s fairly engaging tone, the performers’ skill and director Art Manke’s smooth pacing that “The Ice-Breaker” holds attention easily enough. At present, however, the illusion of cumulative meaningful density tends to melt upon exposure to post-curtain reflection.

The Ice-Breaker

Magic Theater Northside, San Francisco; 160 Seats; 40 Top

  • Production: A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by David Rambo. Directed by Art Manke.
  • Crew: Set, Robert Mark Morgan; costumes, Callie Floor; lighting, Kurt Landisman; original music and sound design, Steven Cahill. Opened, reviewed March 18, 2006. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.
  • Cast: Sonia - Blake Lindsley Lawrence - Charles Shaw Robinson
  • Music By: