Although watery things are present in much of the dialogue in Robert Kropf’s new play, Liv at Sea, a world premiere at the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet, it’s not a maritime story. The meaning of “at sea” in the title is more likely a reference to how Liv — or Olivia, which she insists on not being called — is lost in a maze of incompletely articulated emotions.
Liv (Paige O’Connor) lives with her boyfriend, Nick (Nick Wilson), in what appears to be New York City. Liv encounters a stranger, Jack (Jack Aschenbach), on the street, and a switch is flicked: she becomes obsessed with him, as if she had suddenly found her ultimate soulmate and an escape from humdrum existence. And, it seems, Jack experiences that sudden epiphany as well. He has a longtime girlfriend, and, like Liv, he’s willing to leave his partner to pursue this spontaneous romance.
Liv and Jack’s love-at-first-sight meeting is seen in flashback. The play opens with Liv attempting to tell Nick that she’s fallen for someone else. The conversation sputters with phrases that ricochet every which way without ever finishing a thought. This is true of nearly all of Liv and Nick’s conversations in the play — as well as many between Liv and Jack — but even though nothing is wholly spelled out, the emotions could not be clearer. Liv is deeply alienated and thirsty for romance and adventure. She’s a contemporary version of the bourgeois matron oppressively trapped in domesticity in late 19th-century literature. Nick loves her, and he’s terrified of losing her, but he can’t compete with the allure of that chance encounter with Jack. He offers to “fix” things — including himself — but that’s a matter of security and comfort. Liv wants neither.
Nick’s suffering is heartbreaking, yet he’s not entirely sympathetic. When he clings to Liv, it’s easy to sense why she’s so restless. But Kropf is hazy about the reality of his characters’ situation and judging them. Take Jack, for example. Nick and Jack never meet, except for passing each other obliviously in the subway. For all we know, Jack, who declines to tell Liv his last name, could be a figment of her imagination.
And imagination is key to the theatrical world Kropf has created with this play. The set, designed by Harbor Stage veteran Sara C. Walsh, is sleek, gray, and angled forward, almost pushing the actors into the audience. Sometimes, a change of scene or chronology is indicated by video projections, designed by Max Edgewater, on that angled wall. They might be shots of a street or inside a subway station, the backdrop of a painting, or titles telling when a flashback takes place. At one point, high-intensity lights that ring the stage explode the grayness and add a strobe effect, which turns the actors’ movements into reflections of the staccato dialogue. Indeed, the lighting by resident designer John R. Malinowski and sound by Joe Kenehan are as precise and expressive as the performances.
Kropf’s language often resembles a fragmented Gen X version of Harold Pinter–speak, opaque with quotidian chitchat. But unlike Pinter, it’s also adorned with literary and pop-culture references, interrupted by dreams and narratives, and peppered with metaphors — particularly of water and food. These passages define the characters more than mere exposition. Despite the lack of biographical information, a sense of who they are emerges from this accumulated detail.
As a director, Kropf keeps things moving: the 90 minutes of Liv at Sea unfold at a fast clip, with hardly a breath between scenes and no intermission. O’Connor’s Liv is onstage throughout, and her erratic progression from being tentative, guilty, and mute about her affair to fully embracing the truth is breathtaking to watch. Wilson and Aschenbach (whose characters have the same first names as the actors — were the parts written for them?) are like moons orbiting Liv, and both keep their axes pitched perfectly: as Nick gets more sorrowful and desperate, Jack grows more happy and elusive.
Kropf is artistic director of the artist-run Harbor Stage, and we are blessed on the Outer Cape with extraordinarily ambitious regional theaters such as this one, with its $25 price cap and fiercely intimate facility. As dazzling as the stagecraft is in Liv at Sea, and as polished as the performances are, it’s not an easy story to digest. There’s only a week or so left to see it — the opening weekend was postponed due to Covid — but take the plunge and go. It’s a thrill to join the Harbor Stage “at sea.”
Three on a Mismatch
The event: Liv at Sea, a new play by Robert Kropf
The time: Through Aug. 5, Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m.
The place: Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
The cost: $25 at harborstage.org or 508-349-6800