Since being workshopped twenty years ago, the anticipated world premiere of Sam Catlin’s Sea of Terror is a hit at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif, where it will play until Sunday, October 29th. Quirky comedies with an underlying awkwardness and cringeworthiness can be difficult to pull off without veering into unrelatable absurdity; however, the deft writing and direction by Catlin, combined with a talented quartet of actors who communicate the complexity of their characters with non-verbal cues as effectively as they do through dialogue, has yielded a brilliant play. Invariably, audiences will sympathize with a story that unfolds in the year 2003 — even if they might find themselves sporadically surprised — as they observe a married couple, Ben and Alice, inundated by an all-consuming anxiety as they dreadfully await the arrival of their so-called best friends, the more “successful” coupling of Danny and Doris, to their home.
We’ve all felt, at one time or another, insecurities that feel like internal gut punches caused by a metaphorical army of tiny boxers waylaying the pits our stomachs, especially when we’ve made ourselves and our abodes vulnerable to the outside world, be it strangers or, more so, those we know well and whose opinions can affect us. What can be worse is when these visitors embody an unpredictable mix of idiosyncrasies and judgments.
With their home still momentarily to themselves, the middle-class Ben and Alice make mountains out of molehills, the weak points of their marriage forcefully pushed to the surface by a quotidian evening outing enveloped by the horror of impending intermingling. Alice is nearly inconsolable because she can’t locate a Christopher Cross CD; later, she excoriates her husband for not wearing his new penny loafers (they’re too tight around Ben’s heels) and for forgetting to purchase a toilet scrubby. Alice is the prototypical nagging wife, and Ben is heavily weighed down by his lack of assertiveness. In comparison, as it becomes swiftly clear once the doorbell rings, Danny presumptuously disregards the social consequences of saying or doing whatever he wants; and Doris, who isn’t as well put-together as her presentation suggests, is unafraid of breaking rapport and might have a sociopathic streak.
Throughout ninety stellar minutes, disquieting thoughts and an uneasiness are amplified as emphatically as the music, which juxtaposes ominous melodies against seemingly normal sights; not to mention, various songs (e.g. Duran Duran’s “Rio”) symbolize a rising tide of emotions (sound design is by Alysha Grace Bermudez). While all of this might sound sober and serious, the actors’ delicate execution of the narrative manages to not discount the more meaningful subjects while also delivering an uproariously satirical portrait.
John Ales, of Euphoria fame, portrays the feeble Ben whose conflict is the most central to the plot. Ales is remarkable because, as a spectator, he conveys his character’s misery and bubbling frustration so convincingly. We empathize and side with Ben when he endlessly explains his rationale for wearing Adidas sneakers in lieu of loafers, talks of “putting [his] foot down,” and when he blankly stares into the unknown abyss. Yet, we also laugh alongside him when he, with a perfect deadpanned expression, cursorily rejoinders Alice, comically pretends to strike her, and nervously guffaws in the wake of a general weirdness around him. Ben is a beaten-down man who just desires the answer to the ills plaguing him, and it’s Ales’ physical acting — which sometimes and strategically belies his lines — that ingratiates Ben to the audience.
Julie Dretzin, known for Breaking Bad among other smash shows, makes for a terrific Alice whose anxiousness can be viscerally experienced on a second-hand level. Alice, who is introduced with a cheese platter and veggies in hand, is the type of wife who is demanding but isn’t really willing to do her part and listen; or at least, she’s unwilling to listen to those whom she doesn’t respect, like her own husband. Encapsulating this is when Dretzin’s Alice asks Ales’ Ben to be transparent about his feelings, but then summarily cuts him off. With perceived stakes in the equation, Alice becomes neurotic, projecting her own pathological uncertainties onto others, particularly Ben whose confidence is methodically denuded by her. Still, we’re rooting for Alice to get ahold of herself and be supportive of Ben — a testament to Dretzin (also a producer alongside Joanna Colbert) who manages to keep some of her character’s “upbeat and friendly” attributes intact.
Paul Schulze (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie) is the suit-clad Danny whose eccentricities are gradually poured out to the audience. Unlike Ben who can be histrionic, Danny is more understated but perhaps more fearsome as a result. Schulze cleverly navigates the more reserved, though decisive, Danny who pointedly remarks on why the couples don’t see each other more often (“fear”), not-so-subtly signals an interest in Alice, and then does the most offbeat and simultaneously hilarious thing: he goes overboard in a recreation of the famous Marathon Man “Is it Safe?” dental scene where he plays the part of Laurence Olivier vis-à-vis Ben’s reluctant and confused Dustin Hoffman.
Lastly, improv expert Amy Scribner contributes a great deal to the play as the uptight Doris who is unable to keep up vapid pleasantries for too long without dropping her social mask. Underneath the pearl necklace and formal exterior is a woman with arguably the most devastating chinks in her armor, which become increasingly apparent with every trip to the bathroom. In addition, there is a must-be-heard-to-be-believed monologue about Doris’ run-in with an overweight teenage boy at a wedding that unnerves as much as it is bizarrely humorous. Best of all, Scribner’s Doris earns the most reaction per facial expression, as crazed as they are, which only works because of the actor’s impeccable timing.
Overall, Sam Catlin’s Sea of Terror speaks to a natural consternation in people but with a volume knob that is raised to eleven. The outcome is one that might make attendees uncomfortable or even recoil at times, but in the same way the dry humor of The Office turned everyday problems into a highly engaging and funny rollercoaster. At the core of Sea of Terror is its relatability factor, propelled by the countenance of its performers, which makes the play memorable. And with the Hudson Mainstage Theatre being as intimate as it is, every furrow of the brow, grimace, and existential crisis can be unobtrusively glimpsed and sensed.
Sam Catlin’s Sea of Terror runs through Sunday, October 29th at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre (6539 Santa Monica Blvd Hollywood, CA 90038). For more information on the play, including showtimes and tickets, please visit onstage411.com or call (323) 856-4249.