On Christmas Eve, Sarah and her new boyfriend Sam are enjoying each other’s company, engaging in a philosophical debate about the nature of suffering, when there is a knock on the door; Sarah’s childhood friend Nate is paying her an unexpected visit.
“What if we just hadn’t opened the door?” Sarah says to the audience. “I sometimes get trapped in the loop of that question. To this day, it can take hours to get out of that loop.”
In this way, playwright Anna Ziegler lets us know from the get-go that this one night will change the lives of all three characters.
But the unfurling of that night in real time is just one layer in the Playwrights Realm lovely production of “A Delicate Ship,” featuring a terrific three-member cast. Another layer is made of the characters’ memories of that regretted night, recalling those memories both to the audience and to each other. Then there are their memories during that night, and their hopes and predictions that night for the future…and their memories of those hopes. “A Delicate Ship” is a lyrical play with some of the rich intricacy and circumlocution of a poem. That’s a description, not a warning, although to appreciate Ziegler’s play, theatergoers should be open to spending time with the kind of characters who philosophize about suffering over glasses of wine on Christmas Eve, and ask one another “Are you happy?”
The quick and honest answer is no, they are not, but for different reasons and in different ways. On this particular night, Sarah (Miriam Silverman) is still mourning the death of her father earlier in the year. Sam (Matt Dellapina) , who has been weaned on depressing Russian writers, isn’t yet certain about anything – his talent, his career as a musician, his future with Sarah. Nate (Nick Westlake), one gathers, is doomed to unhappiness; his parents have told him he won’t grow up “because growing up means acknowledging that life isn’t perfect.”
Nate seems outright cheerful, however, when he barges in on this night, bearing gifts –a bottle of champagne, a joint, and “the biggest bag of Cheez Doodles I could find.” Sarah makes clear she doesn’t like Cheez Doodles. Nate suggests it’s more complicated than that: “In sixth grade, you ate Cheez Doodles every Tuesday and Thursday on your way home from ballet in the car service with your mom. Then you got sick of them and we made up a No-More-Cheez-Doodles dance that we performed for my babysitter and her sister who was visiting from Barbados and you haven’t had them since.”
“How do you remember that?” Sarah says.
One of the marvels of the interaction between Nate and Sarah is watching the reaction on Sam’s face. Dellapina is wonderful at reminding us of the awkward, irritating, familiar and funny experience of feeling left out in the company of two long-time friends reminiscing and reveling in each other’s company.
“Did you go out or something?” Sam finally asks.
“No,” Nate replies, “it’s much more serious than that.”
As we sensed all along, we eventually see that Nate’s visit is not just by happenstance. Not knowing but suspecting that he is up to something has been part of what keeps us engaged.
Director Margot Bordelon treats us to a lively pace for such a contemplative piece, and the actors are so good I never once had the urge to yell out “Oh, get over yourselves and go bowling.” (Well, maybe once.) But action and plot are not this play’s strong suit. This is a play about sorrow and memory, memory and sorrow, as striking and ceaseless and circular as those long, youthful late-night conversations you had with someone you thought you might love, and who might love you.
The key to unlocking “A Delicate Ship,” and its title, comes near the end when Sarah reads from W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” which is about the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel.
Everybody in the painting is going about their business, oblivious to the boy in the right-hand corner who is drowning in the sea, having fallen from the sky. Even the “delicate ship” near the boy, Auden writes, “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Suffering, Auden observes in the poem, takes place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
“It’s about what happens when no one is watching,” Sarah says.
“And how the world moves on,” Sam adds. They both are explaining the poem, and the painting, and the play they’re in.
A Delicate Ship
Playwrights Realm at Peter Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street)
By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Margot Bordelon
Reid Thompson (Scenic Design), Sydney Maresca (Costume Design), Nicole Pearce (Lighting Design) and Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design). Alyssa K. Howard, Production Stage Manager
Cast: Matt Dellapina as Sam, Miriam Silverman as Sarah and NickWestrate as Nate.
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $25-$35. (Rush tickets for $10)
The Delicate Ship is scheduled to play through September 12, 2015