That Sinking Feeling

Okay, it's a world premiere of a play by a local writer, but the question remains: Why is a company like Modern Muse, which in the past has demonstrated a certain level of integrity and artistic ambition, presenting a work as weak as The Raft?

There's one slightly original element: three "Gazes" that surround the central character and represent the critical and unhelpful voices of other people. But otherwise, this is a shallow, sloppily written script that relies on cultural cliches. It features Marta, a woman attempting to cope with a mid-life crisis by lying around in bed eating chocolate and drinking wine -- Menopause the Musical without the songs. Marta has a highly ambitious sister, Elan, who wants her daughter to attend an Ivy League college and sneers at the University of Colorado, where Marta's two sons appear to be partying and pot-smoking their youth away -- at least before the younger, Barney, gets his lover pregnant.

Many moments strain credulity. Playwright Coleen Hubbard apparently wanted to get a laugh out of the condom-on-a-banana routine, so Marta laments that she tried this demonstration with Barney when he was seventeen -- although it's hard to imagine a seventeen-year-old sitting still for it. When Barney talks about becoming a father, Marta and her husband, Peter, reminisce about how she got pregnant when they were equally young and how she gave up her education and professional ambitions to be a mommy. But Marta's turning fifty -- that's the point of the play -- and her older son is 24, so she'd hardly have been a kid when she first got pregnant.

Peter is a chef, and instead of tending to vaporous Marta, he's opening a restaurant -- his second -- and there's also a vague reference to a cooking program. We're supposed to feel this makes him insensitive, but instead it's Marta who seems self-absorbed as she wrings from him the promise that he'll stay at home while she takes off for a while and take care of all the things that she normally does. Anyone can see she doesn't do squat besides whine to her sister, toss a few motherly words to Barney and flirt with an idealistic onetime co-worker. And wouldn't you know she'd pull a Shirley Valentine and take off for the beach -- that required destination for all bored, middle-aged women -- where she'll no doubt have an invigorating affair with someone vaguely foreign, someone with glossy hair and intense, dark eyes?

The plot keeps shedding all over the stage. Elan has shamed herself by secretly writing the college-application essay for her daughter, Gracie. (Elan is kind of monstrous, which ought to be interesting, but whenever her nasty streak comes into focus, she undercuts the moment with a self-deprecating reference.) Taking the application to the mail, Elan's husband, Luke, finds out about the essay. (How? Wasn't the envelope sealed?) But any hope that he might disown Elan is lost when Luke somehow locates Gracie's original essay and puts it in place of her mother's.

The Raft does have a few clever lines, and a couple of scenes in which the Gaze device works -- as when the entire company sits facing front, communicating with each other by cell phone and e-mail, or when the Gazes cluster around Marta and chant the list of her wifely and motherly duties. Erik Holum displays a disheveled puckish charm as one of the Gazes, and as Elan, Martha Harmon Pardee is poised and intelligent. But the role of Marta might work better if Gracie Carr gave it more complexity and warmth. And there's some real tone-deafness here: A career counselor offers Marta work collecting and sorting socks for the homeless, which is presented as utterly ridiculous, a big laugh line. Except that anyone who's ever worked with homeless people will tell you that socks are a big need.

The search for local talent is crucial, and writers do need to test their work somewhere. But no one should be subjected to such pseudo-philosophical lines as "What's your raft?"

Least of all me.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman