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Anna Ziegler's new play stages inescapable memories
Plenty of plays break the fourth wall, with characters stepping outside the action to speak directly to the audience. It's the rare show, however, that lets characters break the fourth wall together.
Yet that's that exactly what happens in A Delicate Ship, the new play by Anna Ziegler that's now in a Playwrights Realm production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd Street. As they reenact a life-changing incident from several Christmas Eves ago, thirtysomethings named Sarah and Sam constantly exit the story to reflect on what happened. They not only describe their perspectives to us, but also confess things to each other that they didn't know how to say at the time.
This creates two distinct worlds.
In the "Christmas Eve zone," we see a realistic play where no one is aware we're watching. Sarah's friend Nate unexpectedly crashes a romantic holiday evening, and he manipulates everyone until they're all discussing his twisted emotional secrets. This eventually hurls the characters into a devastating crisis.
It's the kind of disaster that changes people forever, so that no matter how much time passes, it always exists somewhere in the back of the mind. And that space – that shared, ineradicable memory – is where we find Sarah and Sam when they break the fourth wall. They turn to us to describe how they felt that night and explain what's happened since. When they talk to each other in this space, we get the sense that these conversations couldn't happen in "reality." These are Sarah and Sam's private, emotional selves, who are somehow sympathizing with one another, saying what can't otherwise be said. (Nate also addresses the audience, but it would be too revealing to explain how and why.)
Taken together, these "outside reality" conversations give even more weight to the events on Christmas Eve. They grant physical life to the notion that we can stay bonded to people forever, even if we don't see them very much anymore.
"You can never divorce yourself from someone entirely," Ziegler says. "That's so much of what the play is about. Everything disappears and nothing disappears. There' s loss – which is an actual, physical disappearance – but then there's the impact of loss, which never goes away."
Not that she originally intended the show to work like this. "I gave myself an assignment to write a play that took place in a single evening and then almost immediately began to cheat on my own assignment," Ziegler says. "As I was writing, I wanted other times from the people's lives to enter the play, because it is so much a play about memory and the power of the past."
Yet A Delicate Ship also acknowledges that despite these heavy connections, life forces us to change. That's partly why a section of the plot revolves around W.H. Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts", which ruminates on how the world never stops spinning for anything, not matter how much it hurts.
The structure of the script makes the same argument. Because even though the characters play out their painful night, and even though they're still fused to each other by the bone-deep memory of it, they also get on with things. We don't actually see Sarah become a lawyer or Sam become a musician, but when they talk about it, we know that just beyond the walls of the theatre – just beyond the place where their shared crisis remains so powerful – they've got lives that aren't touched by the Christmas Eve zone.
As Ziegler says, "It's the idea that no matter what is happening, we will – and have to – keep going past it."
Mark Blankenship is the editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Jenny Anderson. Top photo, L to R: Nick Westrate as Nate, Miriam Silverman as Sarah, and Matt Dellapina as Sam.