‘Surf Report’In: Caution, dangerous rip currents
By Carol Davis
LA JOLLA, California–In Annie Weisman’s world premiere Surf Report now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse in the Mandel Weiss Forum, the waves have yet to break, the water’s flat, the surf is receding and the rip currents are enough to drag you down. Yup, all that and the characters are as boring as hell, and as superficial and shallow as you can imagine.
Weisman, who grew up in Southern California, Del Mar to be specific, seems to have a keen eye tuned in to the hubris churned out by the locals (not all) which some might call conversation. She has written about their behavior, their attitudes and their way of thinking in this work and in her play Be Aggressive (seen at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad this year and which premiered at the Playhouse in 2001.) She can be funny, biting and scores points perhaps by some as an equal opportunity offender.
Having lived in San Diego for over fifty years and not being of a beach mindset sets me apart from her way of thinking, yet not completely incubated from the shallow nothingness of Weisman’s peeps.
Weisman’s characters, Hal (Matthew Arkin), Bethany (Zoë Chao), Judith (Linda Gehringer), Bruce (Gregory Harrison) and Jena (Liv Rooth) are connected either by work, family or school. Their little circle isn’t very expansive with the exception of Bethany’s because she moved from the beach community of Del Mar?, La Jolla? to Brooklyn, NY. At least she thinks she pretty cosmopolitan. And as for the Jena, she’s all the Valley Gals rolled up into one voice. (David Zinn’s costumes capture her perfectly)
Judith is Bruce’s girl Friday/work planner/ glorified secretary/ housemother. She is married to Hal who is somewhat of a nebbish kind of a guy, unemployed with a few secrets of his own and Bethany is their daughter who can’t stand her mother.
Bruce is a venture capitalist that struck it rich making shrewd investments in others ideas and now can surf any beach in the world he chooses (depending on the surf reports, of course). He’s a lucky, self centered and selfish SOB who uses Judith up and tosses her in the trash like a used surfboard. Jena is an old school friend of Bethany’s who by chance or fate or the playwrights need to have her in this story, hooks up with Bethany when she is summoned home by Judith.
The play opens (Rachel Hauck’s minimalist set is rich in blue hues lit to perfection by Ben Stanton) in Bruce’s two level beachfront pad with Bruce scanning the waves waiting for Judith to tell him what the surf report says. She’s flustered and fussy as she sets up his office getting ready to give him the day’s report, plans and schedules for future meetings. The two, having worked together for seventeen years, seem on opposite oceanfronts.
Underneath all the pleasant talk a nervous Judith tries to set time aside to pitch an idea to Bruce who has about a million other things on his mind (surfing for one) other than listening to another sales pitch, especially from Judith. He gives in when she suggests they ride up the coast together so he can get one of his favorite steak tar tare dishes made just the way he likes it.
The two take off north to Santa Barbara even though Judith’s husband is counting on her to accompany him to the doctors while he undergoes some testing for a latent cancer that has shown up again. She calls Bethany in New York to come and be with her dad because Judith thinks her pitch is more important than being with her husband. Bethany has some important plans to visit a photo gallery since photography is her passion. The lure of money that she so desperately needs, however, is enough for her to change her mind to come home (just for the weekend).
With a less than engaging story line to attract one’s interest, director Lisa Peterson has her work cut out for her. But for the fact that Gregory Harrison is one cute dude to look at strutting his stuff in his surfing shorts, flexing his pecs, and an angry outburst from his character Bruce about his being Jewish, the energy level overall is as flat as low tide.
That said there is plenty room for improvement in this world premiere play and my guess is that if some of the mess floating just beneath the surface makes it to the top, gets clarified and really feels personal we might be able to care more about these folks.
Linda Gehringer is one fine actress. She was wonderful in South Coast Repertory’s production of Piano Teacher, Weisman’s Be Aggressive and Hold Please. These are but a few of her many accomplishments. I’m not convinced this is her finest hour, however. The chemistry is wrong and so is she for this role. She huffs and puffs frowns and looks agonized and out of place. It just doesn’t work.
Matthew Arkin’s Hal has yet to be developed. Every time he appeared on stage you hoped for some energy, enthusiasm, reason to like him to know him better but that doesn’t happen. It’s even difficult to muster up sympathy for his character knowing he is the underdog, most neglected member of the family and suffering from an almost incurable disease. The dynamics don’t ring true.
As a feisty Bethany Zoë Chao looks the part well. She pouts, harrumphs shows a bit of anger and petulance and even gets annoyed with Jena. She’s also one spiteful little girl. When she meets up with Bruce however, they both have an “I like you moment”. And it seems life goes on. The question begs though, will it go on with Bruce and Bethany just as it did with Bruce and Judith?
Let’s hope she’s smarter than her mother, but hope springs eternal. From the body language seen on Bruce and Bethany as they leave his digs, it’s doubtful anything will change. But then again, who cares?
Valley Girl Jenna is the most animated, truthful and wisest of the whole lot with seemingly few axes to grind. Liv Rooth is perfect as the coastal hipster weather vein of this entire project. Telling it like it is from her own experience and point of view (which happens to be more real than imagined), taking care of her own ailing mother and giving some sage advice to Bethany is a turn about as fair play.
Thankfully Jenna, the least of all the characters you would expect to light a flame under this piece is the one voice (still in sing/song and Valley) who adds needed color and breathes some energy into “Surf Report”. There is hope that future surf reports will show more hope as the tides ebb and flow into the La Jolla shores.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: June 15th-July 11th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, California
Ticket Prices: $31.00- $66.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Forum
Davis is a San Diego based theatre critic