A Beach Too Far

It's been said that all you need to create theater is two planks and a passion. With its basic platform stage, South Beach's EDGE/Theatre comes raggedly close to meeting the first criterion. As for the second, Jim Tommaney, the company's artistic director and general manager, supplies the requisite passion in ample amounts: Heedless of the theater's meager resources, he produces at a frantic pace, having persevered to stage eighteen productions in the troupe's 26-month existence. EDGE's repertoire of plays by Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Harvey Fierstein, Lanford Wilson, David Henry Hwang, and A.R. Gurney would seem enough to stoke anyone's dramatic fervor. For his part, Tommaney demonstrates a zeal for one particular play above all others: his own work, South Beach -- The Play, currently being presented in its third run. The production's program calls it an "annual feature."

Certainly it has to be passion that drives Tommaney: With lukewarm reviews from the play's 1996 run (following a 1995 debut) that ranged from "slight" (Miami Herald) to "deliciously awful" (Sun-Sentinel), a return engagement is less a revival and more a resurrection. Apparently undaunted by the prospect of yet another negative notice, Tommaney lobbied this newspaper for coverage; it failed, however, to make New Times's overcrowded 1996 review schedule. In an unpublished letter to the paper, he compared his creation to Edward Albee's 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape. True, similarities do exist: In both works, lives and seaside leisure activities are disrupted by a chance encounter with members of another species. But then, the same could be said of Jaws.

The return of South Beach -- The Play (third time's the charm?), with a new cast and minor rewrites, brought a renewed plea from Tommaney for second reviews from the dailies and any review from New Times, and so over the Fourth of July weekend -- when the rest of the nation was transfixed by possibilities from Roswell, photos from Mars, and repair updates from the Mir space station -- I saw Tommaney's tale of two intergalactic visitors who force six South Beach pleasure seekers to testify in a trial held to decide the fate of humankind. Although it will take months for Pathfinder to survey Mars, my two-hour excursion to South Beach -- The Play gave me more than enough evidence to dismiss any claims of intelligent life at EDGE/Theatre.

It's a typical day on the Miami Beach sands as six characters -- stereotypes, really -- get acquainted in the play's opening moments through flirting glances and introductions laced with innuendos. Titania (Isabela Mendes) presides over these initial proceedings, and all other South Beach revels, as the journalistic chronicler of the local scene, calling herself "the Queen of the Night." No, not Tara Solomon -- the product of Tommaney's limited imagination writes for Interview. Her friends Carlos (Kenneth Michael Rogers), an HIV-positive artist who is as debilitated by his father's homophobia as by his own illness, and Steve (Chris Vicchiollo), a masseur who "works love" into his clients' bones, immediately start speculating about the sexual orientation of vainglorious new-guy-on-the-block sunbather Victor (Justin Carrano), who claims to be straight even though he dances at a gay club in Fort Lauderdale. Titania's pot-smoking single-mom friend Kate (Andria Angora) welcomes another stranger to the party by sharing her joints with Betty (Annie Henk), a market researcher from Manhattan with a secret past. Perhaps if Kate would also share her stash with the audience, we would be better equipped to follow what happens next.

Two visitors (Michael W. Brooks, Jr., and T. Veronica Puleo) materialize through a wormhole in the space-time continuum, touching down at what they describe variously as "God's Waiting Room" and "Sodom by the Sea." On assignment from the Global Observation Detachment/Survival Division, these two space judges announce they have arrived to make another in a series of periodic midcourse corrections to humankind's evolutionary journey. In the glinting lights of a disco ball, the duo encircles the six beachgoers in a force field for the duration of the trippy tribunal. Unable to escape their roles as witnesses and always up for a new experience anyway, the sunbathers readily take turns spewing out intimate details of their personal lives, until they discover that at the trial's conclusion one of them will be chosen as a sacrifice. Too labored to be a comedy and too outlandish to be compelling drama, this metaphysical mess rides into The Twilight Zone on The Chariots of the Gods when it divulges that a previous space tribunal involved a young carpenter from Jerusalem. In symbolism that would make sci-fi hacks blush, the current South Beach trial's victim forgives the others, then paves the way for humanity's salvation by ensuring that those remaining behind are given the opportunity to change. (Did I mention that at the end one of the witnesses changes his name to Peter and sets off to preach the new gospel of inner truth?) The muddled play introduces a new-age religion that combines Christianity and a heavy-handed championing of gay lifestyles; we also get a simulated sex scene and a participant who finds salvation only through embracing his homosexuality.

Salvation has never seemed less appealing. Who would want to live in a world peopled with such vapid characters, artificial actions, and insipid dialogue as presented here? For example, when the extraterrestrials ask Titania if she is successful, she reveals only her desire for "the hand of God to hold me like a futon for eternity." Not that the interplanetary interlopers offer any more wisdom: Here in part to dissuade us from shallow posturing, they sagely advise only to "look beyond beauty to the siren soul."

The cast members, like the majority of the characters, are mere mortals, yet it would take superhuman acting ability to breathe life into such vacuous dialogue. Rogers offers the most diversion, mining Tommaney's script for Carlos's comic moments and valiantly trying to convey real emotions amid the contrived pathos. Taking her role as the oracle of South Beach much too literally, Mendes delivers Titania's lines as thudding pronouncements; still, she creates some semblance of character, while the others merely mouth wretched words.

Hal Brooks's direction agonizingly reinforces the courtroom motif by allowing each character to stand up or move about the stage only when he or she is being questioned. Likewise, Tommaney's script comes across more as wearisome testimony than dramatic narrative; his characters relate feelings and actions but are never given scenes in which to portray them. Consequently, South Beach -- The Play is much more of a tell than a show.

Great dramas, even those with science fiction trappings, succeed largely because they are based in reality. Although most of Tommaney's play strains credibility, one aspect rings true: the narcissistic South Beach denizens' self-deluding pursuit of their own pleasures. Watching this third production of South Beach -- The Play in the Espanola Way theater, I had to agree that EDGE's artistic director turned playwright had indeed come up with a compelling real-life parallel.

South Beach -- The Play.
Written by Jim Tommaney; directed by Hal Brooks; with Andria Angora, Michael W. Brooks, Jr., Justin Carrano, Annie Henk, Isabela Mendes, T. Veronica Puleo, Kenneth Michael Rogers, and Chris Vicchiollo. Through July 27. For more information call 531-6083 or see "Calendar Listings.

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