A relatively new troupe, only two years old, The Pond Theatre Company showcases new works by emerging British and Irish playwrights. Its third and latest production, The Naturalists opened Wednesday night for a brief run at Walkerspace, the 99-seat black box theater where Soho Rep usually holds forth in Tribeca.
A world premiere, The Naturalists has been written by Jaki McCarrick. This Irish author’s previous plays include Leopoldville, a thriller about a gang who attempts to rob a pub, and Belfast Girls, the story of five women who flee the Irish Famine for Australia in 1850.
The Naturalists, seemingly a quiet romance between two lonely people, proves to be one of those deceptive endeavors that goes along nicely until it suddenly slides into incredulous doings.
Set in rural Ireland in 2010, the story begins as Josie (Sarah Street), a free-spirited soul in her 30s, is hired as a housekeeper for Francis (John Keating) and Billy (Tim Ruddy), scrappy siblings in their respective late and early 40s. The Sloane brothers share an untidy trailer on the remaining acreage of the family farm, where they strive to rebuild their ancestral home.
As weeks pass, Josie is drawn towards Francis, a spiritual fellow who speaks wisely and lovingly about the trees, flowers and creatures that surround them. As their relationship buds, we learn that Francis once spent a dozen years in prison for an undefined crime. Josie overlooks gentle Francis’ shadowy past to creep into his bed.
Then late in the first act, Billy reveals to Josie that Francis was a terrorist who masterminded a massacre of 18 British soldiers back in 1979. After his release from prison, however, Francis vowed to redeem his sins by becoming a naturalist in the hope of “givin’ back to the earth what he says he took from it.”
Unexpectedly, Josie declares to Billy how she considers the brothers “so as to seem the two halves of the one person,” and then she and he lock into a passionate embrace.
Huh? What just happened?
The playwright then lays aside this interesting triangle for a while in the next act to introduce a fourth person, John-Joe (Michael Mellamphy), who comes for a visit. John-Joe was in prison with Francis for the same attack. A subsequent plot thickener involves a large sum of money. Let’s say little more story-wise except to note that John-Joe, a gun-toting thug, is appalled when he deduces the threesome. Violent confrontations eventually lead to a happy ending.
Pond Theatre evidently invested some bucks on this premiere, which is co-directed mostly at a leisurely pace by Colleen Clinton and Lily Dormant, the company’s co-founders. Designed by Chika Shimizu, the set for the trailer is detailed realistically with man-cave clutter, although it might have been smart to mask the space’s black walls with a green backdrop to suggest the Irish countryside that figures so rhapsodically into the dialogue. Resetting the props between the play’s 13 scenes also burns up some of the play’s 2:15-minute running time.
The performances at least are sincere, although a miscast Keating, more often seen in quirky character roles, is bland as a leading man. Street projects Josie’s yearning quality, but there’s little she can do with the character’s unlikely motivations. There is no chemistry between them. Ruddy and Mellamphy are okay as the dour brother and the dangerous chum. Unfortunately, between the Irish accents and everyone’s efforts to speak naturally, at times it is difficult to comprehend what anybody is saying. Sometimes authenticity needs to be sacrificed for audibility.
The fatal error is choosing to produce McCarrick’s faulty play, which initially holds some charm but eventually implodes. In addition to its significant motivation (or lack thereof) issues for the characters, the plot is overloaded with excessive back-stories regarding past events and people, like the one about the brothers’ mysterious mother who has long gone missing, which results in too much explication. Even though the set lacks greenery, one can practically watch the grass grow as the characters talk on and on and on.
The Naturalists opened September 12, 2018, at Walker Space and runs through September 23. Tickets and information: thepondtheatre.org