The Dead Sea
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
August 15, 2004
One of the more powerful images evoked in Mark A. Robertson’s new drama The Dead Sea is that of a boy trying to drown himself in the Dead Sea—but he finds that he can’t sink, so he just floats there on the surface. Ironically, Robertson’s script also floats on the surface. The play has a lot of heart but the playwright never cuts that heart open for us to see what’s inside.
The occasion of the play is the return of Caleb (Robertson) to his father’s house after four years of wandering. He left when he was sixteen because his father (Elias Stimac) was an abusive drunk. His two older brothers Jake (Hayden Roush) and Corey (Nick Amick) have come to their father’s house for Christmas. The play skims along until Caleb reveals a secret in a brilliant scene that contrasts the joy of dancing with the violent reality of Caleb's deed.
There are three other characters whom we never see, including the boys’ mother who died a year prior. Caleb seems to be very close to his mother, but she is too undeveloped for me to understand why. This exemplifies my main problem with the script. There are too many unanswered questions. For example, why does Corey’s wife leave him? Why is Jake an agnostic? Why was the father a drunk, and why did he quit? What happened to Caleb? What motivates his actions? I wanted to know what makes these characters twisted inside, what makes them dysfunctional. But we are not allowed in. We are given anecdotes and nostalgia instead.
The play could also benefit from a little stronger direction. There are several bursts of emotion and action that are awkward and uneven, and the pacing of the show is a little choppy. The actors are reaching for a realistic style but, with the exception of Roush, they fall short. Overall, I think The Dead Sea has a great deal of potential. Many of the elements that can make a play great are in place, such as some interesting contradictions, influential off stage characters and a solid premise. Robertson just needs to delve deeper. The fact is, if you dive deep down to the bottom of the Dead Sea you’ll find pristinely preserved shipwrecks. These shipwrecks are there in Robertson’s characters—they just need to be revealed.