Cruise fanatics, in particular younger ones, are no doubt a weird bunch. It bespeaks a certain personality (or, pathology) to serially indulge in this form of encapsulated leisure, where the fun is prescribed and buffet-style. Maybe they’re a little lost, or perennially in search of something.
At least one person, by the name of Samantha Graff, thought the cruise phenomenon interesting enough to write a dissertation on it, and this literature in turn inspired playwrite Sheila Callaghan to conceive a (tragi-)comedy on the subject. This is Port Out, Starboard Home, showing this week at Z Space.
A research-driven project from the get go, POSH began in the field – which is to say, a cruise to Mexico – where Callaghan and crew set to work observing on-board behavior and interviewing subjects that would inform the play’s eccentric cast of characters.
Callaghan starts by summing up each oddball in a few punchy characterizations, which the cast delivers in unison. There is:
Daria (Jessica Unker), teenage and medicated (“I’m here to drink umbrella drinks and sunburn the fuck out of myself.”)
Gary (Calder Shilling), middle-aged and infantile (“Gary likes to quote movie lines; it’s fucking annoying.”)
Gayle (Angela Santillo), bubbly, sex-starved and oblivious (“She’s a fucking terrible dancer.”)
Carolyn (Debórah Eliezer), recently divorced (“I would goddamn marry this pool.”)
Blake (Josiah Polhemus), a wealthy asshole (“He found out about this cruise on 20/20.”)
Mack (Benjamin Stuber), Blake’s socially awkward son (“Mack believes people need to think of themselves as unique, and they’ll do anything to preserve this façade. This makes him hate everyone. Especially himself.”)
They have all signed up for this particular cruise with the promise of a spiritual journey. Sure enough, cruise director Johnny O (Brian Livingston), a tattooed and wickedly mustachioed kind of Folsom Street sailor, along with a prim, unsettlingly serene woman named Maya (Amy Prosser) and a silent server (Patrick Young), shepherd the bunch through a series of degrading activities – a bona fide feeding frenzy and a “depletion” dance to internet meme mash-ups, for instance – leading up to an undisclosed final “ritual.” By disembarkation the group is shaken, to say the least.
I, too, was relieved to have the play finally dock. POSH‘s physical comedy is its number one asset, and this carries the production to about the halfway point. From there, though, it was a pretty humorless passage to disembarkation, darkened by the looming “ritual,” the intrigue of which only thinned up until the point of revelation.
In this trajectory POSH lobs something resembling a critique at contemporary American culture, broaching issues of consumerism, alienation, autistic behavior and other such usual suspects. But the indictment is as unfocused as it is clunky, as exemplified by a liberally drawn-out mandolin rendition of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and, ultimately, the nature of “the ritual” itself.
Cruise fanatics, we can conclude, are a funny and sad group. We already knew this, of course, but POSH does a good job carving out a particular set of such eccentrics nonetheless and brings them to life with a strong cast. Their spiritual needs, however, make rough waters for a comedy. In going down that road full throttle, unequipped with a fully-formed critical apparatus, POSH winds up off course. Perhaps more research was required.
Port Out, Starboard Home runs through Saturday, 9/22, at Z Space; 450 Florida Street