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We critics—though there are those in the theater who’ll surely disagree—are cockeyed optimists. Night after night we take our seats, two on the aisle please, hoping something or someone in that theater, on that night, will give us the kind of charge that we got into the business for.

When theater really happens, it’s a hair-raising thing. When it doesn’t quite, we try to write compellingly about the show anyway; we do so because we love theater, after all. When we’re cranky, or when that wild energy doesn’t even come close to materializing, we can be bitchy. Hey, we’re human—though again, there are theater people who’ll disagree.

Some of us are even hopeless romantics: I’d hoped, sentimental me, for a moment or two of that elusive theatrical magic to liven up my last night as a Washington critic. It never quite happened—but The Muckle Man has just enough quirky fun about it that I won’t be leaving town in an evil mood.

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Fright night meets fish story meets family drama in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “dark fairy tale for grown-ups,” a brand-new play staged in a bare-bones Joe Banno production as the finale of the Source Theatre’s Washington Theatre Festival. (Full disclosure: Both Aguirre-Sacasa and Banno are Washington City Paper contributing writers.) A workaholic marine biologist (Daniel Ladmirault) obsesses over the giant squid that’s washed up near his Newfoundland home while his artist wife (Jenifer Deal) paints seascapes, pines for the warmer seas of her California childhood, and eventually plans an escape with the mysterious stranger (Sean Mullan) who drifts in with the tide one fateful afternoon. Naked, of course (it’s Source), and smelling strongly of both fish and something fishy. Bad things have happened by the time he appears, and anyone who’s spent time in Maine or parts northward will know from the title that plenty more are swimming in his wake.

The show is frequently funny and occasionally downright hilarious—usually when the action’s focus is on Michael Laurino, who plays the smart-aleck sidekick holding down the night shift at Ladmirault’s lab. But The Muckle Man is hardly a prize catch: It’s a one-trick seahorse, in fact, though Aguirre-Sacasa has tried to flesh things out with some crumbling-relationship drama, grafting onto the central mystery a series of increasingly tedious conversations about when the fish doctor will start paying as much attention to his spouse as to the fine specimen of Architeuthis that holds pride of place in his lab.

What would be a respectable, snappy one-acter becomes thereby an evening-length stretch, though it’s a stretch handled professionally enough by all concerned: Banno’s direction points up the efficiency of Aguirre-Sacasa’s scenes, which have an admirable sitcomish neatness about them; with a few exceptions (most involving that overdone domestic drama), they end precisely when you expect them to. Brian Keating’s muscular sound design, which moves from low submarine burble to the surge and crash of a North Atlantic storm, does a lot to underscore the story’s structure, and Dan Covey’s lighting scheme might have been inspired by a classic Hollywood thriller.

The ensemble acquits itself pretty well, too: Add to Laurino’s quick-witted Gilbert the cheerfully dotty Dora (Jennifer Phillips) and you’ve got a fine comic pair. Deal brings surprising subtlety to the wife’s endless hand-wringing, and Wyatt Fenner makes his Source debut with a nicely nuanced turn as the son whose fate turns out to be part of the central shocker. (A youngish new face named Martin Colbert turns up briefly as another son—and does himself no dishonor.) Ladmirault, too, turns in some nice work in the lighter scenes, though he rather overdoes his character’s sulks and storms. Mullan’s mysterious stranger says little—and begs less said about him.

But once Aguirre-Sacasa lets us in on the play’s big secret, his characters don’t have anything to do but tread water until the curtain comes down. As though to acknowledge that fact, he wraps things up pretty briskly once the truth comes out—though not briskly enough to keep Papa Scientist from realizing the error of his ways and reaching for a reconciliation. Ho-hum, we think; Isn’t he dead yet?

Neither ruthless enough as a shocker nor rich enough as a study of characters and relationships, The Muckle Man keeps swimming that ultimately unrewarding middle channel until we’re impatient for the night things to hurry up and go bump. Cut the maudlin interpersonal crap, punch up the comedy and the freak factor, and it could become the kind of juicy little 90-minute thriller that gets staged (even screened) all over. As is, it’s just a slog. Waterlogged, even.

That said, I’m curiously glad that this is the last memory I’ll take from Washington. Aguirre-Sacasa is a homegrown talent (or a reasonable-enough facsimile thereof), and even an uneven new play from a local writer is a heartening reminder of just how rich the theater scene is here. I’m not at all sure what’s waiting on the stages of Harare, Zimbabwe, where I’ll be settling in by the time you read this; what with the riots and the runaway inflation, everyday life there involves enough drama for all but the hardiest Grecophile. But I have a feeling that, after all these years of Woolly and WSC, Source and Studio and the Shakespeare, Arena and ACTCo and all the rest, I’ll be ready for whatever they throw at me—magical, maudlin, or anything in between. CP