The Delling Shore is one of those plays on words where bitter aging writers squabble about who stole whose ideas, who sold out, who deserves fame more, and who’s the bigger asshole. That the setting is a tranquil country house in a rural town. The name of Charles Van Doren, the alleged genius 1950s quiz-show cheat, is invoked early in the play to suggest the vicissitudes of fame and fortune; there’s a rumor that he lives not far from this comfy and expensive “Delling Summer Home” where famous writer Thomas Wright (Jim Frangione) is staying with his daughter Ellen (Meredith Forlenza).
Tom and Ellen are visited by the vaguely-expected-but-four-hours-late Frank and Adrianne Bay. Frank and Tom were in the same college writing program 30 years before, and Tom had more recently availed himself of Frank’s couch and friendship after a busted marriage. Frank, who has not enjoyed Tom’s success, has now come to arrange an internship for his daughter “Ade,” who adores Tom’s writing and wants to work alongside him.
There’s grist for dozens of plays in that set-up, and we get hints of many of them in Sam Marks’ meandering script, which is as laid back as the summer-home environs. Marks creates credible characters—the jealousies and self-loathing and awkwardnesses will be familiar to anyone who ever wandered liberal arts university hallways. But he plays out each of the key exchanges too long, to the point where the plotting starts seeming more random than natural. The foursome of fathers and daughters plays “The Book Game,” a parlor sport of intellectual one-upmanship which is amusing for the first round but annoying by its third. There are accusations, then other accusations, then reruns of the earlier accusations. There are entire scenes which exist virtually in a void, just so all the characters get a chance to get together and berate each other in private as well in public.
All this Delling dilly-dallying can make you anxious for a point to emerge. When it does, it’s inevitably disappointing, since Marks has established early on that these stubborn characters are unlikely to ever change their ways or learn from their mistakes.
The four-person cast does its best to make all their contradictions and confrontations believable. Jim Frangione, properly portly and beady-eyed as the successful Thomas Wright, carries himself with just the right air of self-satisfied without being snotty. As the pained and defensive Frank Bay, Bruce McKenzie spends the entire intermissionless 100 minutes of the play tensed into a knot, yet he’s so gaunt and wiry that you worry his own bluster will blow him away. Catherine Combs as Frank’s daughter Adrianne, and Meredith Forlenza as Tom’s Ellen, provide neat next-generational counterparts to their bickering dads.
Yet an idle thought I had while watching—would I rather see Frangione and McKenzie in each others’ roles?—led to a realization that all four characters are cut too closely from the same cloth, their issues virtually interchangeable. They are all using deflection and metaphor to deflect from their insecurities and emotional failures. None of them can sustain a meaningful relationship, including with each other.
I found all the talk about literature in The Delling Shore frustrating. The discussions of books and authors is wonderfully precise. I wanted to experience the books that were being referenced more than I wanted to hear their opinions of the authors. That’s a tribute to Daniel Zimmerman’s set, which is lined with bookcases and comfortable furniture to read them in. The room has even been given a symbolic wooden rafter frame in the ceiling, with warm hanging lights.
The Delling Shore is an uncomfortable place to visit, but I would want to live there.
Marks’ script has inspired Zimmerman, but he doesn’t give director Meredith McDonough nearly as much to work with. It’s a very talky piece, even with props like a collectible baseball and a fireplace poker in it, and the best she can do is arrange the cast in various positions of standing, sitting, or circling about. There’s a nice sight gag or two with a wine bottle, but generally The Delling Shore is an actors’ and playwright’s piece, only as good as the lines being uttered at the time.
Some of those lines are very good indeed, as when the characters describe their ingenious “Book Game,” as well as their own lives, with the words “deception,” “imagination” and “reading people.”
But ultimately, reading these particular people becomes tedious, and you long for one of them to turn over a new leaf already.
The Delling Shore
Through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Bingham Stage).
By Sam Marks. Directed by Meredith McDonough. Scenic Designer: Daniel Zimmerman. Costume Designer: Lorraine Venberg. Lighting Designers: Russell H. Champa, Dani Clifford. Sound Designer: Benjamin Marcum. Media Designer: Philip Allgeier. Stage Manager: Zachary Krohn. Dramaturg: Hannah Rae Montgomery. Casting: Henry Russell. Performers: Bruce McKenzie (Frank Bay), Jim Frangione (Thomas Wright), Catherine Combs (Adrianne Bay), Meredith Forlenza (Ellen Wright).