Sea of Tranquility

The mordant comedy "Sea of Tranquility" skewers three perennial, peculiarly American myths: People who want to change can change; people who want to effect change can make a difference; and the American West is the "new Arcadia" within which change becomes possible.

David Bishop

The mordant comedy “Sea of Tranquility” skewers three perennial, peculiarly American myths: People who want to change can change; people who want to effect change can make a difference; and the American West is the “new Arcadia” within which change becomes possible. Scribe Howard Korder assembles a baker’s dozen of contemporary grotesques to potently prove, with comic brio, it ain’t necessarily so. Despite a rather gaping hole at the center of helmer Michael Bloom’s Old Globe production, there’s enough absorbing story and pungent thought to make this “Sea” worth setting sail on.

Santa Fe, N.M., fabled fount of renewal (as celebrated in “I Want” songs in tuners “Rent” and “Newsies”), is the port of call for relocated East Coast therapist Ben (Ted Koch), ensconced with new wife Nessa (Erika Rolfsrud). A hack writer, she’s collaborating with a local archaeological team to gain enhanced cred by proving the gentle, flute-playing Anasazi were cannibals.

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Just as Nessa battles local tradition, idealistic Ben — with a need to atone for Connecticut sins, revealed late — butts up against a daftly challenging client list, starting with Jewish lesbian Phyllis (Nike Doukas) at wit’s end with skinheaded son (Sloan Grenz) sporting a “What Would Hitler Do?” T-shirt. The therapist tries comforting a convict (Carlos Acuna) with a mysterious connection to his house and a tortured soul (Joy Farmer-Clary) who comes by to drop hints of abuse and mind control.

Things are scarcely better at home, where walls are cracking and foundations shifting. Manically self-absorbed brother-in-law Randy (Jeffrey Kuhn) is in from L.A. seeking hot tub time and the ministrations of a luscious underage runaway (Ashley Clements). More troubling still is Nessa’s slowly debilitating illness, with a possible casual relation to the Native American sacred grounds her work is disturbing.

Through line linking these disparate strains must be Ben’s determination to make things right, but the likeable, shambling Koch never exudes the requisite questioning intelligence. One can easily believe he screwed up a psychiatric practice but never that he embarked on one: He’s earnest yet flaccid in consultations, gazing out in anguish instead of boring into a patient’s psyche.

Robert Wierzel lights him for full focus during the numerous scene changes, but all we see is a big ol’ bear getting mopier over time.

Absent a keenly analytical therapist, we’re left to concentrate on his retinue, happily a varied and compelling lot. Doukas makes a blazing impression in two brief scenes, and Kuhn is so ecstatically wired it’d be no surprise to spot an extension cord trailing off behind him.

In two chameleon-like feats of doubling, Rosina Reynolds shifts from Phyllis’ bubbly inamorata to a steely, raging Southwestern dowager, and Ned Schmidtke effortlessly embodies both an elegantly sinister attorney and a bearded, do-rag-wearing biker type.

Most compelling of all is Rolfsrud’s Nessa, whose agonized journey of discovery and eventual stoic resignation dramatizes the oxymoron of Korder’s title. There’s no sea of tranquility anywhere, just endlessly choppy waters one does one’s best to navigate.

Scott Bradley’s massive, terraced set amusingly evokes a cross-section of an archaeological site, out of which helmer Bloom deftly retrieves artifacts of modern malaise in a latter-day “You Can’t Take It With You,” perhaps better retitled “You Can’t Take It, Can You?” If Korder’s anatomization of contempo impotence doesn’t dig deeply enough to qualify as archaeology, as a piece of dramatic sociology it unquestionably absorbs and entertains.

Sea of Tranquility

Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage; 581 seats; $62 top

  • Production: An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by Howard Korder. Directed by Michael Bloom.
  • Crew: Sets, Scott Bradley; costumes, David Kay Mickelsen; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Paul Peterson; stage manager, Elizabeth Lohr. Opened, reviewed Jan. 17, 2008. Runs through Feb. 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Ben - Ted Koch Ashley/Adele - Rosina Reynolds Phyllis - Nike Doukas Josh - Sloan Grenz Nessa - Erika Rolfsrud Randy - Jeffrey Kuhn Gilbert/Roman - Carlos Acuna Astarte - Joy Farmer-Clary Kat - Ashley Clements Milton - Tony von Halle Johannsen/Barry - Ned Schmidtke
  • Music By: