A strong core of emotional believability and thematic interest inhabits Steven Drukman’s “The Prince of Atlantis,” which inquires into the bonds between fathers and sons and between siblings. How much is nature and how much nurture? What does each generation owe another? But in Warner Shook’s premiere production at South Coast Rep, several uncomfortable layers of artifice keep the play nibbling at these important questions instead of chomping down on them with relish.
The action finds its groove in a moving series of confrontations between Miles Overten (Brett Ryback), a nervous, thirtyish Gotham publishing type adopted at birth, and Kevin Colletti (Matthew Arkin), a formerly institutionalized milquetoast even shakier on his pins. Miles has only now learned he was fathered out of wedlock by a Boston seafood entrepreneur self-dubbed “the King of Atlantis” and gradually pulls a torrent of answers, gently yet agonizingly, out of the tortured older man.
However, Miles is unaware Kevin isn’t the king but rather a court jester to flamboyant brother Joey (John Kapelos), now serving nine months for fishy labeling practices and unwilling to meet his son clad in an orange prison jumpsuit. The hapless Kevin — think Fredo Corleone to Joey’s Sonny — is strong-armed to impersonate the pirate in a witless, sitcommy premise we know will never go anywhere even as it’s being laid out.
Additional absurd complications emerge from Joey’s sort-of-fiancee Connie (Nike Doukas), a brash over-the-hill bimbette. The king’s got an heir now, and she’s fond of the lad, so she immediately starts scheming to bring a new one into the world. Say what?
The gulf between the play’s phony plot and rock-bottom reality is widened by the setting, a Beantown suburb known as “down the Lake” evidently marked by a specialized dialect as strange as Gullah or Creole. To the Collettis a “divia mush” is a crazy guy, a “quistya jival” a hot chick and an “overchay” a fabrication, all of it overlaid with that bleating vowel sound captured in the famous expression “Paaak yer caaar in Haaavad Yaaad.”
Shook’s cast and dialect coach Philip D. Thompson have clearly worked hard — too hard — to master “Lake talk.” The accents hang over the play like a shroud, the text so self-consciously peppered with slang it’s nigh impossible to cut past all the obnoxious sound and focus on meaning.
Every bit of alien patois is delivered in italics and quotation marks. If Ryback’s is the standout perf, it’s partly because he’s so fine and unmannered but also because he’s not forced to blare that damn flat A all the time. (He too starts calling money “wonga” and talking about “scoffing inga” or eating crap, but fortunately things get wrapped up soon after.)
Under the circumstances Doukas occasionally, and Arkin rather more often, manage to settle into some honest communication, while Kapelos’ one-note bombast renders his scenes insufferable. Helmer Shook does the thesp no favors by allowing him to stand in the middle of the visiting room and bellow revelations Joey says he’s worried about prison officials overhearing.
For his part, Drukman might want to reconsider the forced parallels to the plot of “Hamlet,” and the inconsistent portrayal of Connie first as a dumb bunny referring to the “Yom Kippur” Jews wear on their heads and then as a wine connoisseur who can pull off a slick pun on “quid pro quo.” That’s “The Prince of Atlantis” — each neat line or insight followed by a really cheesy one.