It’s always scary for any critic when a friend writes a play, let alone writes three plays that all end up being produced in one season. Such is the case with actor-playwright Nick Salamone, who in 2008 first saw his outrageous political satire Hillary Agonistes win director Jon Lawrence Rivera Best Director honors at the New York Fringe Festival before its run here at studio/stage. That significant triumph soon followed by the Theatre @ Boston Court’s dynamic production of his incredible musical Gulls, adapted from Chekhov’s The Seagull, for which Salamone and co-creator Maury MacIntyre are currently nominated for an Ovation Award for their book, lyrics, and musical score.
Now only a couple of months later, the lyrical five-character Sea Change, Salamone’s most personal work to date, has surfaced as a tight and tidy little production at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s auxiliary Davidson/Valentini Theatre. Sea Change, set entirely on the deck of a small sailing craft in Provincetown over the course of 25 years, fills the small space with Gary Reed’s omnipresent two-decker ship set, a place where this intriguing though hardly perfect group of fiercely loyal friends meet and try to sort out the last confusing years of the 20th century together whenever there is need a good strong dose of family in their lives.
The symbolism is hardly lost as Sea Change rocks the emotional waters for the boat’s quietly introspective owner Gene (Ryan Yu) and his gregarious boyfriend Sunny (Nick Cimiluca), who on a weekend cruise to spot whales off the Cape in 1974 discover their relationship might be dashed on the rocks by other factors before too long.
As Sunny accidentally learns from the ever-puking Val (Clay Storseth), a decidedly conservative and fish-out-of-water churchmouse out on the ocean for the first time, that his lover is contemplating leaving him to enter the priesthood, a new budding relationship between Gene’s childhood friend Jan (Lisa Tharps) and the guys’ feisty, politically-crusty pal Elle (Fran de Leon) starts to develop, the two relationships cleverly juxtaposed with one another simultaneously on the ship’s adjacent levels.
Even before intermission, the shipmates in Sea Change begin to evolve from smoking joints and getting naked to seamlessly revealing themselves as their later 2000 incarnations, a feat handled right onstage as Elizabeth Huffman’s colorful period costuming is gracefully exchanged for more modern dress under Tim Guion’s moody coastal lighting. The single Sunny is still on “automatic gay pilot” in 2000, while Gene, now a quickly fading HIV-positive priest—originally infected by his guiltily healthy ex—instead shares a loving though celibate lifestyle with Val.
Later again, as the remaining four friends head to sea together once more to scatter Gene’s ashes at sea, Sunny tries to get up the courage to tell Val he’s fallen in love with him while the girls, still together despite Jan’s increasingly troubling reliance on psychiatric meds to quell her schizophrenia, prepare to give birth to the couple’s first child together, conceived with the help of Val and a handydandy dixie cup.
But as Elle subconsciously rubs reassurance to the life growing in her belly, she also recognizes her time with Jan is now in danger. After a quarter-century together, she sadly realizes that she’s “forgotten what it’s like to love her, to look at her with longing, to touch her hair, to smell her smell and want her—or to sit quietly in a room with her beside me and feel like I could be happy there for the rest of my life.”
Simply, this modest production is gently breathtaking, aided immensely by the smooth and easy direction of frequent Salamone collaborator Jon Rivera, who leads his exceptional ensemble of precision players into one of the most memorable productions of the year. The cast is golden, with particular nods to Yu and Tharps, whose final scene together in Act One is fine acting at its most stunningly committed and moving, as is a later scene where the now-deceased Gene returns in a non-psychotropic fantasy as Proteus, seaweed-draped watcher over all things and all people, those seaworthy or those drowning in the upheavals of their lives and the world around them.
“What does ol’ dead Proteus know of love, silly child,” the Father of the Sea asks. “You know your Homer: the passion of mortals is the whim of the gods.” But Jan reminds him the gods are dead and gone. “Unfortunately for you,” he laughs back at her, “our whims remain.”
Sea Change completely solidifies for me the wonder of Salamone’s most exceptional playwrighting talent, his work able to gnaw out the inequitably rough knotholes of life while celebrating how satisfying it can be when one gets to the fresh sea air other side. Salamone possesses the unique ability to muse long and hard about the world in which we live—and even offer subtle suggestions about how we might just be able to survive in it—without ever once sounding as though he’s preaching to the audience.
In a fair future, Sea Change might prove itself to be Nick Salamone’s own Seagull—or more likely someday be heralded as only one of the first notable plays in a major body of work, plays that should be hanging around and explaining who we were in 2008, and who we wanted to be, long after we’ve all been lost at sea ourselves. “Life takes things,” one of Salamone’s troubled and desperately inquisitive characters notes in Sea Change, “and it never gives them back.” Luckily, the nature of art is exactly the opposite and clearly, Nick Salamone is an artist to watch. That’s the stuff that keeps us all afloat.
Sea Change plays through Oct. 26 at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.860.7300. For more information, www.lagaycenter.org/site/PageServer?pagename=TE_ON_OUR_STAGES