Part of the 34th Humana Festival of New American Plays. Continues through March 28 at Actors Theatre. Directed by Casey Stangl. For tickets or more info, call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.
It’s a risky business for a writer, mining the zeitgeist for laughs and meaning. Drill into the culture at the wrong time or place, and you wind up with a dry well. That’s sort of what afflicts Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play “Sirens,” the opening production of this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“Sirens” has a rich enough premise: a middle-aged couple faces an empty nest, fading passion, anxiety about the future.
For the husband, Sam (Brian Russell), there’s also a crisis of creativity. He’s a one-hit songwriter whose romantic ode to his wife — written 25 years ago — is so beloved that every musician on the planet has covered it, and royalties are still paying the bills. No matter how he tries, he can’t write a new song.
On the other hand, his wife, Rose Adelle (Mimi Lieber), faces a crisis of identity. It’s hard to tell who she is these days. Mostly she’s a memory; she’s the person who used to be the person who was the Rose Adelle in the song. She wants to hang on to her marriage. And the pink-skirted nymph of long ago has become a brass-voiced wife who knits, scolds Sam for checking out nubile women, and plans to celebrate and rejuvenate her marriage with a vacation.
It turns out Rose Adelle has also been keeping tabs on Sam’s Facebook account. She’s observed that his “friends” are all women, that his profile picture is way out of date, and that he’s been searching the web for a crush from long ago. Why? Because Sam is pretty sure that old girlfriend is the muse he needs to break through his writer’s block.
This leads to a salvo of jokes about Facebook, MySpace and the Jersey Shore (not Rose Adelle’s preferred vacation destination). Alas, the jokes don’t really emanate from language or character. They’re just disconnected punch lines that elicit laughs because Russell, Lieber and director Casey Stangl serve up broad physical cues to ensure the audience understands that, yes, when Rose Adelle asks Sam whether he’s “poked” one of his online gals, or says she doesn’t want to vacation on the Jersey Shore, it’s time to laugh.
Instead of hanging on the Jersey Shore, Sam and Rose Adelle cruise the Mediterranean (admirably evoked by lighting designer Jeff Nellis), and at last the play develops some shape. Rose Adelle’s urgent attempts to connect to Sam and his phony attempts to placate her have the ring of melancholy observed truth. When Sam plunges into the sea and washes up on the isle of the Sirens, his encounter with a self-absorbed Siren (Lindsey Wochley, who plays multiple roles with élan) who alternates between luring ships onto deadly rocks (bones and skeletons are strewn about) and playing solitaire with a handheld is droll as can be.
And by the time this somewhat pathetic Odysseus finds his way home, his putative Penelope has reached out to her own high school sweetheart (Ben Hollandsworth in a funny cameo), resulting in a clash that’s at least as silly as it is sweet.