PERVERSE MALICE A writer at sea, in a Strangers At Home show.
Love sometimes comes to us in baffling, difficult and downright intolerable forms. And just such a romance finds Ben (Glenn Provost), a sensitive and preternaturally tolerant young writer, when he pulls the manic, needy, cruel Tracy (Tana Sirois) out of the sea, in Don Nigro’s Seascape with Sharks and Dancer. Directed by as well as starring Provost and Sirois, this Strangers At Home Theatre Company production runs at the West End Studio Theater, in Portsmouth.
Ben brings the watery maiden-in-distress home to his cozily ramshackle, sea-themed bachelor home: its décor is bohemian nautical, with netting, lobster traps, buoys, a hefty old typewriter, and a Buddha image (the play was written in 1974, and a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull would not look out of place here). Tracy, blonde and wrapped in a sheet for much of the first act, immediately and brutally disdains the modest whimsy of Ben’s home. In fact, she immediately and brutally disdains Ben himself. “Ineffectual,” she calls him, hard and withering. And “stupid.” And a “eunuch.” She mocks him as a would-be rapist, and then, covering her bases, mocks him as a would-never rapist.
What he is, of course, is a would-be novelist, and perhaps that explains why the devastatingly intelligent but unstable, baiting, arrogant, insecure, and dangerous Tracy proves a such fascinating, if barely willing, recipient of his mild-mannered ministrations. Emotionally damaged or not, Tracy really is a bitch. But Sirois gives that bitchery intricate dimensions and variations, deftly layering the young woman’s offensive and defensive digs, and lightening them with the occasional purely playful one. Her eyes and mouth reveal much about her inner suffering, as her gaze steels and softens, as the hard, cruel line of her jaw sometimes twitches or melts at the edges. To Tracy’s overall tautness, Provost’s Glenn is wide open, loose, radiating a constant warmth. Together, they effectively establish, phase, and deepen the wax-and-wane patterns of approach, attack, retreat, and precarious communion that characterize their partnership.
Nigro himself seems at times unduly fascinated with Tracy’s perverse malice. Because Nigro shows the lovers mainly in moments of conflict, we have but little sense of the happy and fulfilling side of their life together; it’s therefore often easier to feel pity than empathy for Ben. His writing wallows in her mercurial, erudite snarkiness, which at times feels a little repetitive, histrionic without necessarily being dramatic.
That said, Provost and Sirois do an exemplary job giving the script nuance and developing the relationship’s complexity. Over Tracy’s many monologues, Sirois demonstrates a sensitive and intelligent capacity for dynamic variation and build: she ranges from faux-lilting storytelling tones to the low, scarily steady comparison of a fetus to a potato. She does particularly fine and subtle work in revealing how it is Tracy’s love that most fuels her loathing. Provost nicely tempers his enthrallment with empathy, irritation, and anger, and he triumphs in the challenge of a very steady character and a very long build to catharsis, gradual until his emotions are shocked and assaulted to the surface.