We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Flotsam? Or is it jetsam? What’s the word for the deck chairs and other such detritus left floating about after a great ship goes down?
That’s the question Scotland Road, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Titanic-inspired mishmash, brings to mind. Where the sinking of the “unsinkable” White Star liner was an epic disaster, Scotland Road is a rather ordinary and unimpressive wreck, more embarrassing than tragic and monumental only in its pretensions.
Hatcher invites his audience to check disbelief at the door and come along while an irritating autocrat and his tame shrink try to extract explanations from a young woman who’s been discovered sitting on an iceberg dressed for a Victorian high tea. She won’t speak, of course, but before lapsing into silence she did say one word to the Icelandic fishermen who picked her up: “Titanic.” Naturally, the two interrogators, John and Dr. Halbrech, are convinced that she’s either a contemptible hoax or a pitiable psychotic. Naturally, she turns out to be something supernaturally else, and she eventually wreaks profound changes on the less kindly of her inquisitors.
No problem so far. It’s easy to see this kind of premise working brilliantly in an elegantly constructed, unapologetically literate comic mysterysomething along the lines of Blithe Spirit, bristling with wit and steeped in highbrow skepticism, the kind of play in which clever repartee is a perfectly functional weapon against manifestations of the paranormal. The tabloid-story setup, the enduring pop-culture glamour of the Titanic, the tried-and-true storyteller’s device in which the fish out of water upends the situation so that everyone else joins her when she returns to the tankall could’ve made an intoxicating mixture.
But Hatcher takes an entirely different routeor routes. He wants to talk about unhealthy obsessions, the Romantic tendency to mythologize disasters and pine for a possibly fictitious golden past, and a couple of other things besides. The heavy-handed earnestness he brings to the conversation would be sad if the result weren’t so laughably portentous. Scotland Road twists and turns like a cut-rate Usual Suspects, but it lacks the mathematical precision and tight credibility that made that film such a whip-smart marvel: Why, for instance, does John, enraged to the point of artlessness, lash out at the mystery woman by singing a ragged chorus of “Nearer My God to Thee”? We all know by now that despite the sentimental myth about that hymn, the Titanic’s band played another”Autumn”as the ship slipped below the icy waters. Hatcher seems to think that information will surprise the audience; he gives it to his strange heroine, who uses it to establish her bona fides once she’s prompted to speak. But since we already know it (and wonder why John doesn’t), the moment is more puzzling than revelatory.
I’ll say this for the Source production: It’s nicely designed, with a stark white box of a set by Tony Cisek, who’s a whiz at making strong statements on a slender budget. The performance space seems to hang suspended a foot or two off the floor of the auditorium, as if to underscore that the interrogation room where Scotland Road’s narrative plays out isn’t quite of this worldan impression enhanced by the opening UFO glow from under the lip of the stage. The clean, intense lighting (by William A. Price III) is a great help to Pat Murphy Sheehy, whose brittle, self-consciously stagy direction seems intended to fool the audience into feeling actual dramatic tension.
Wynn Hollingsworth is surpassingly annoying as John, whose last namestop reading now if you’re still planning on seeing thisinevitably turns out to be Astor (at least for a while; there’s a twist there, too). Hatcher gives him a deliberately stiff manner of speaking, all clipped phrases and staccato syntax, but Hollingsworth goes a step further and manages to make the character seem carved out of wood. As we’re eventually supposed to sympathize with him, this is not a good thing.
Michaeleen O’Neill, at least, is agreeably tart as Dr. Halbrech, who like John turns out to be not quite the advertised article, though her secret isn’t of any discernible importance. O’Neill gives this production much of its minimal spark, with able assistance from Beverly Brigham as a superannuated Titanic survivor who’s brought in to unmask the young woman and is instead unmasked herself (you’ll see this preposterous surprise coming about five minutes before John does). Susan Lynskey gives a commendable if sometimes overly ethereal performance as the woman from beyond the ‘berg.
But the female cast and the creative team can’t overcome the schizophrenia of the script. Scotland Road hasn’t decided whether it wants to be a psychodrama, a supernatural mystery, or a character study (albeit with a central figure so unattractive that the audience can’t possibly care for him). So it tries all threeand dabbles in comedy besides. Or perhaps the laughs are unintentional. Certainly there aren’t many of them.
Flotsam, by the way, turns out to be the word for the pitiful leavings of a marine tragedy. Jetsam is the deadweight chucked deliberately overboard to lighten a ship in dangerwhich, come to think of it, is what Source ought to think about doing to whoever snookered them into staging this particular disaster.CP