BY DAVID KENNERLEY | Ever wondered what would happen if somebody stretched out a five-minute “Saturday Night Live” skit into two hours? Well, apparently dramatist Marlane Meyer has, and the result is “The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters,” a wicked, somewhat cryptic romp now playing at Playwrights Horizons.
In this boldly theatrical production directed by Lisa Peterson, ingenuity and incongruity reign. The story, which takes place in a redneck town deep in a forest somewhere out west, boasts creepy woodland creatures, like a stuffed squirrel, raccoon, fox, and deer, that hide among the trees in Rachel Hauck’s wildly inventive set. Even the stagehands wear plastic animal masks during scene changes.
Oddly juxtaposed to this are oceanic motifs — a diaphanous aqua curtain, a giant whale puppet spouting glitter, and periodic visitations from Saint Martyr Bride, “patron saint of spinsters, childhood infirmity, and sea monsters.” Bedizened in seaweed garlands, pearls, and a starfish crown, she promises respite from this godforsaken place.
Deep in hillbilly territory, an imaginary saint promises succor to lost souls
Not only does the plot defy easy description, but giving away too many details would spoil the fun. It’s a love story of sorts between Calvin (an excellent Rob Campbell), a murderous drunkard who can’t hold a job, and Aubrey (Laura Heisler), a highly intelligent yet socially awkward doctor who worships Saint Martyr Bride.
The naïve Aubrey wants more than anything to believe that Calvin is her soul mate, the man of her dreams. For his part, Calvin will say anything just to get laid. He’d like to clean up his act, but he’s racked with guilt over a little incident involving his wife’s corpse
Will Aubrey’s prayers to her obscure and possibly fictitious saint get answered?
Lurking on the periphery is a motley band of eccentrics, many who reveal hidden pockets of homespun wisdom. These include Calvin’s foul-mouthed, sociopathic mother (Candy Buckley), his wisecracking buddies, Canadian Bill (Haynes Thigpen) and Speedy (Danny Wolohan), an ex-Marine psychic with a squeaky voice, a big-breasted floozy (Jacqueline Wright), and a lovelorn male convict bent on cuddling with Calvin.
As fans might expect from Meyer (“The Chemistry of Change”), “The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters” has more than easy yuks on its mind. Buried beneath the jarring insults and eye-popping sight gags are pointed musings on the transient nature of love, marriage, family, and faith. For some, love is a majestic creature, a salvation. For others, it’s a nasty trap.
The play also considers the animalistic side of humankind and the mystical power of dreams.
The first-rate performers, most taking on multiple roles, go a long way to ground the proceedings. If many characters remain cartoons, the leads shade their roles with unexpected depth. Greasy-haired Campbell plays the wretched Calvin with wry sensitivity and makes his stunning transformation credible. Despite Aubrey’s religious fervor and hare-brained antics, Heisler adds just enough sweetness and humanity to keep us on her side.
“I know it’s the dream of every woman to be married,” Aubrey says. “And I know from personal experience that you can make these things happen if you believe them hard enough.”
Meyer can’t resist tossing in a few topical rants to bulk up the play. When complaining about fat cats who kept their jobs while putting millions of Americans out of work, Aubrey asks, “At what point did we become two Americas? At what point did Greed stop being one of the seven deadly sins?”
Unfortunately, like the sketch comedies from which it was inspired, “The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters” may be too clever for its own good. The jokes are hit-and-miss, and there are passages where levity gives way to tedium.
Yet despite any shortcomings, this warped dramedy leaves us with a marvelous sense of wonder and renewed faith that in this wild world, any goal is worth going for. A dream shattered is still far better than no dream at all.
THE PATRON SAINT OF SEA MONSTERS | Peter Jay Sharp Theater | Playwrights Horizons | 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Dec. 1; Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m. : $60 at ticketcentral.com