It is a slow, and sometimes difficult journey, to discover what “Salt-Water Moon’ is really about. But do not let that put you off. In this context, ‘slow’ is synonymous with ‘gently absorbing’ while ‘difficult’ can be paraphrased to mean ‘thoughtful’ or ‘intelligently imaginative’. The ambiguity is deliberate as the play may not be to everybody’s taste, but it kicks off 2023 with a blast of fresh air that wouldn’t be out of place on the ragged Newfoundland coast that is the setting for this engaging two-hander.
Set in the front porch of a coastal summer house in 1926, “Salt-Water Moon” is essentially a love story. Mary Snow (Bryony Miller) is star gazing through an eyeglass. Mim Houghton’s simple, festooned design evokes the starry, starry night, complemented by Neill Brinkworth’s lighting: a palette of blue and gray. It is not entirely clear whether Mary is expecting it, but a lilting voice – familiar to her – is heard in the distance, followed by the appearance of Jacob Mercer (Joseph Potter), Snow’s former sweetheart who abruptly left a year before to try his luck in Toronto. Mary initially resolves to remain true to her current fiancé, Jerome McKenzie, rightly betraying the hurt caused by Jacob’s desertion.
Potter plays Jacob with a permanent, cocksure grin that borders on arrogance: an arrogance that is belied by an assured, commanding and loveable performance. Potter’s natural charisma allows us to forgive the character’s sometimes dated sentiments and sentimentality. Equally, Miller rescues her character from the downtrodden path she could have taken, and we get a real sense that, whoever wins, she is quite capable of giving as good as she gets. There is a deep sense of rivalry between Mary’s unseen fiancé and Jacob, the exposition of which cleverly places the piece in the context of the first world war. Without lecturing us, the emotional and traumatic fallout that the Newfoundlanders suffered is poignantly understated, yet vividly described through David French’s dialogue.
The dialogue drives the play which, on paper, is a challenging script. Potter and Miller certainly rise to the challenge, tackling the dynamics (and the accents) with ease and skilfully playing with French’s words to strike the right levels of emotion. A talented duo, they possess the art of listening to each other and reacting. It is an intuitive and astute performance, full of realism. Peter Kavanagh directs with the same authenticity – subtle yet magical. There is a loving attention to detail that gives us the larger picture, just as the occasional silences reinforce the narrative.
Although the play ends with an unresolved outcome, we are left in little doubt as to the answer to the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ question. Nevertheless, we do leave the theatre wanting to know what happens next. This makes sense, as “Salt-Water Moon” is the third play in a quartet that features the two protagonists. Yet it has the fullness of a stand-alone piece of writing that explores the nature of love, betrayal, patriotism, loss, forgiveness and loyalty. It revisits a bygone age and harks back to a former and sometimes forgotten spirit of theatre; quietly asserting its relevance. A slow burner, but one that burns bright.
“unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad”
We need to talk about “Steve”. Or rather Steven. And Stephen. And Esteban (the Spanish form of Stephen). There’s another Steve, too, in Mark Gerrard’s tragicomedy who lurks, unseen, offstage but just as instrumental in the unravelling of the tightly knitted relationships of his namesakes and their best buddies. Even the late Stephen Sondheim is ever present throughout this production, to whom it is dedicated; his music a constant undercurrent, and wisps of his lyrics reverently scattered over the dialogue. There is something elegiac about Gerrard’s bittersweet tale. A parable, almost. Self-aware and conscious of the passage of time.
The play opens with Steven celebrating his 47th birthday in a downtown New York bar. Although not in a fully-fledged midlife crisis, Steven is struggling with the transition into middle age. A stay-at-home Dad, he is also grappling with the notion that his long-term partner is having an affair with his best friend’s partner. Meanwhile his closest confidante, Carrie, is terminally ill. Fuelled by vodka stingers he inevitably spills out his emotions, upsetting his guests and the glasses on the table. But no matter, Argentine waiter Esteban is on hand to clear up the literal and figurative mess. So, too, is the rewind button which replays the scene avoiding the outburst and offering a smoother transition into the unfolding narrative that follows.
Andrew Keates’ spirited and passionate direction perfectly mixes a human story with a heightened, almost musical delivery from the characters. Whenever it becomes a touch absurdist we are pulled back into the nitty gritty of everyday life. Infidelity, parenthood, monogamy, mortality, impending death, lost opportunities. We all know the score. We may have heard it before, but Gerrard manages to make it fresher by putting it in the context of same sex relationships. But even that concept, like the play’s protagonists, is reaching a certain age, and Gerrard is cleverly questioning whether the gay community itself might be having a midlife crisis. ‘Where do we go from here?’ he seems to be asking. While celebrating the huge progress made over the decades, there is a whole new set of questions now. Inspired by the passing of the New York marriage bill, Gerrard is reflecting on the double-edged nature of the milestone. “Oh my god, now we can get married. What are we supposed to do with that?”
This is definitely not a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario, however. Nor is it a caricature of the gay American Dream. The writing is too sharp for that and at times the sexuality is irrelevant. It speaks to everyone. It is fundamentally about relationships and friendships and how we look out for and after each other. It is unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad. Keates makes us care deeply about the personalities laid bare before us, aided by his impressive cast.
David Ames holds the fort as Steven, hilariously abrasive and camp but deeply caring and easily wounded. Jenna Russell gives an absolutely glowing performance as Carrie, the bold and brazen lesbian confronting her terminal illness with more strength than all the men around her put together. All the performances are exceptional; strongly twisting the dialogue – wringing out the laughs and the tears in equal measure. The highs and lows are mirrored by Ben Papworth at the piano, echoing the emotions with his dynamic and varied accompaniment.
The phrase ‘Once Upon A Time’ is a leitmotif throughout the show that reminds us that this is a New York Fairy Tale – in many senses of the word. But it also reminds us that the happy endings promised are more elusive than we once thought. We have come a long way, Gerrard seems to be saying, but there’s still further to go. But, hey, forget the psychobabble – “Steve” is in essence a hugely entertaining tragicomedy. Sharper than most that cover similar ground, it cuts through societal and sexual divides and then unwittingly sews them together. It appeals to all of us – and is a ‘must see’.