The arrival of a mysterious, threatening stranger signals the fall of a despotic patriarch in Ivy Production’s The Site, a muddled play about an idiosyncratic family and the unearthing of their buried sins.
Reviewed by Ilena George
Outside of Truxton, AZ, Doctor Harold Roth (Marty Brown), an argyle socks and suspenders-clad “archaeo-geo-physio-bio-neurologist,” is futilely searching for evidence of a rare species of toad capable of surviving underground. In tow is his wife, Faith (Rebecca Lingafelter), a poet who some time ago suffered a break with reality: she still functions, but only communicates in abstract statements and metaphors. Rounding out the team are Sherry (Sarah Claspell), the long-time personal assistant, and Brandon (Bobby Hodgson), the bumbling field assistant prone to fainting spells. Visiting for the weekend is the Roths’ college-aged son, Matt (Ian Merrigan), and his girlfriend Amy (Jenny Seastone Stern) who is meeting his parents for the first time and who has news she needs to share with Matt “in private.”
Playwright and set designer Al Schnupp cleverly plays on the archaeological theme: the audience witnesses the action from above, as though we were archaeologists and the play were the dig site we were uncovering. And the uncovering is a leisurely one. The first half of the play takes its time in introducing the characters; they bicker, they eat breakfast, they bicker some more. Casting a strange shadow over the proceedings is the impending arrival of Ruth Meyers (Aimée Phelan-Deconinck), an unauthorized visitor to the site who claims have an appointment to speak with Doctor Roth.
Although the play gains considerable momentum with Meyers’ arrival (Phelan-Deconinck is very effective at conveying both the seductive appeal and the dangerous threat Meyers poses), The Site is hard to engage with. Despite the variety and dramatic potential of plot points—unplanned pregnancy, grossly unethical scientific practices, an Othello-esque accusation of infidelity—the production meanders, tightening the threads of its storyline too slowly for a compelling narrative tension.
It’s hard to tell what tone the play is taking and in what direction the action is heading. The way characters overreact to mundane things (for instance, Matt brings a gun with him, so his father suggests he patrol the perimeter and “escort” any intruders back to the site) and treat the significantly abnormal as quotidian (the family engages with Faith’s semi-coherent ramblings but don’t seem to address her illness) makes the play seem absurd, even though the production is too sincere for that label.
My difficulty suspending disbelief was also partially due to the overly wrought language, which even the actors stumble over. To illustrate: “Well, get him up, the lazy cuss,” Roth commands, in reference to Brandon being late to work. Roth’s word choices feel forced: Matt tells his father to “speak regular,” and Faith’s half-poetic, half-disturbed ramblings are wholly unnatural. Strange casting choices also make the play a hard sell: few of the characters appear as old or as young as their characters presumably should be.
For each mystery Ruth Meyers lays bare during the story’s climax, the play leaves more questions unanswered. For someone who is so brilliant and has so many hyphens in his specialty, why is Roth’s research so mundane? And why are his crimes even more pedestrian? The production dips a toe into the murky waters of unethical scientific practices, and how far a brilliant scientist should be allowed to go in the name of intellectual pursuit, but fails to really dig in and get its hands dirty.
The Site by Al Schnupp
Directed by Mark Sitko
Walkerspace (46 Walker Street, between Church and Broadway)
May 18 - June 7, Wednesday - Sunday at 8pm, Monday, May 19 at 8pm.
Tickets $18: www.TheaterMania or 212-352-3101.
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