“Rubber Ducks and Sunsets” at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Closed July 27, 2013)

July 18, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Catya McMullen
Directed by Kate Middleton
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Bereavement is a lengthy and often painful process. Not only does the “next of kin” need to scramble through the thick underbrush of anger, denial, and bargaining – hoping to accomplish some degree of acceptance – but that person also has to cope with the unraveling of the social system of which he or she has been a part often with deleterious and life-changing results. Catya McMullen’s complex and fascinating “Rubber Ducks and Sunsets” is at its core a play about bereavement and a group of friends’ search for meaning in the madness of loss.

After Al’s death/suicide, Walter (JD Taylor) unravels and re-ravels under the weight of his personal grief and the individual and collective grieving of Al’s sister Amy (Christine Mottram), and his and Al’s long term posse Casey (Anna Stromberg) and Eli (Josh Evans). Additionally, the entire “extended/intentional family” has to dodge the slings and arrows of Al’s diabolical personal assistant Petey (Zac Moon) who turns out to be far more menacing than a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Twenty-one vignettes configure Ms. McMullen’s “Rubber Ducks and Sunsets” each introduced by/separated by a performance (guitar and commentary – comedy club style) by the grieving Walter. Walter’s performances provide the setting (place, time, and mood) for each of the play’s scenes.

The conflicts between the characters (and there are many) drive a plot that leads to an unexpected climax, a satisfying series of resolutions, and a welcomed catharsis. It would be anticlimactic to rehearse each of the conflicts; however, it is important to report that all of them revolve around unresolved grief: mourning the loss of Al; mourning the loss of control and power; mourning the loss of innocence; and ultimately mourning the loss of twenty-something naiveté as the friends are forced to transition into an age bereft of innocence and overcharged with ennui.

The ensemble cast is uniformly capable and, under Kate Middleton’s supportive and careful direction, uses every ounce of their formidable craft to capture the spirit of Catya McMullen’s script. They give honest performances from places of struggle and pain and uncertainty – places symbolized by the bathtub filled with rubber ducks which served as both Al’s place of comfort and Al’s place of untimely death. (“Which way was he facing when they found him?”) The scenes play on many psychological and emotional levels, some clothed in realism, some drenched in scintillating surrealism. All of them capture a group of friends and acquaintances hell bent on finding a way through their insufferable grief.

All’s well that ends well in this “Friends” like drama. But the path to that end is littered with raw emotion, frayed nerves, bruised faces, battered spirits, and a degree of playfulness which helps to reach the level of redemption and release required of catharsis. There is still work to be done on the script and on the production: it is overly long and struggles to end far too often. However this one minus is overshadowed by a plethora of powerful performances and a well-conceived and well executed premise. See it before it closes on the 27th of July and expect to pay more to see it in the near future. And that is a very good thing.