The Beautiful Beautiful Sea Next Door
nytheatre.com review by Taylor Shann
July 21, 2012
The title grabs you. The name of Annah Feinberg's new play, The Beautiful Beautiful Sea Next Door, evokes a deep longing for the ocean that stirs the imagination. And for awhile, it seems like Sea can deliver on what the title promises. There are sequences and moments of raw power that are riveting, along with beautiful imagery about a place or idea that is close but still out of reach. But there are also a lot of other ideas and pieces that do not connect, and eventually the loose ends pile up and the play cannot make the leap from an intriguing idea to a successful piece.
Set in a one-man barber shop near the ocean, the show begins with a woman seeking refuge after being raped by a man named Poseidon. The woman is named Medusa. After the hairdresser takes in Medusa, the kitchen sink drama kicks in when Poseidon realizes that the fruit of his crime, a winged baby named Pegasus, is his only heir.
Jumping ahead 15 years in the second half, Hairdresser and Medusa try their best at raising Pegasus in the confines of the barber shop. Poseidon keeps hanging around the outside of the shop, trying to meet his only son. And Pegasus, now an angry young man trying to hide his wings, is obsessed with the sea. He can hear it outside (and so can we, thanks to the hypnotic sound design by Joshua B. Jenks), but he has been denied it his whole life. The more lies Hairdresser and Medusa tell the boy to protect him, the more he yearns to break free.
Are these characters who they say they are? Are we talking THE Medusa and THE Poseidon? Yes, and no. Poseidon seems to be in charge of the Ocean, but also is trying to read up on low-carbohydrate diets, and expresses confusion that other people think that rape is not, in fact, a good thing. We only ever see one snake in Medusa's hair, and there's not a single line about anyone at risk of turning to stone. Pegasus is born with wings, but is not a horse. If you're confused, you're not alone: the audience around me was paying rapt attention, but you could feel the puzzlement in the air.
Playwright Annah Feinberg is trying to get at something here, and I confess I don't know what it is. Greek mythology, marine biology, the beauty and danger of hair cutting (or maybe just scissors) AND the gender politics of self-identity are all on the table here. Each is explored, sometimes beautifully. But there isn't enough focus.
Is this about Greek gods in a modern setting? Or is it more about modern myth-making? Is the sea supposed to represent the whole world, and the terrible things that can happen in it? Is this a satire on the new nuclear family? Is there some meaning to the fact that Medusa and Poseidon were reading the same book before the rape, and he seeks to return it years later? And what about Hairdresser? He goes only by that name, but he has an off-stage sister named Andrea, so clearly he was not born with the name "Hairdresser." Is he making his own legend?
The lack of ground rules eventually makes the intrigue give way to frustration. Even the twists of the last ten minutes, while dramatically exciting, create more confusion than clarity.
Make no mistake, there is something here. Parts and sequences work. All the performers have accomplished credits, and commit entirely to their roles. The Hairdresser has a monologue about love and violence that stings with hard-won truth. Yasha Jackson effectively conveys Medusa's anguish at having to lie to a loved one to protect them. Poseidon walks the tricky line between innocence and evil, as a god would when confronted with concepts of morality that seem utterly alien to him. Most winning is Nick Lehane as Pegasus, whose evolution from a polite child to defiant teen is sad, organic and riveting. (Who knew quiet speeches to a phantom group of marine biologists could be so affecting?) And all the while, the surf can be heard offstage, there but just out of reach.
But in the end, Sea is too big and too full of ideas to be cohesive. Although it runs just 90 minutes, it feels epic and exhausting. Not because I was bored, but because there is just so much going on, and not enough of it lands. It's okay to ask the audience do some of the heavy lifting, but at some point that lifting just becomes speculation.
According to her bio, the playwright is finishing up an MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia University. I would wager the research she did in writing this play was fascinating. But one of the three or four big ideas she tackles here should have been shelved for a future work.
Hopefully, there will be future works. No one enters into a Dramaturgy program lightly, and any playwright who can keep you guessing has real talent. I think Feinberg will have more to say in the future, and it will be well worth a look.