Patricia Kalember and Dylan Baker in  Sea of Tranquility(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Patricia Kalember and Dylan Baker in Sea of Tranquility
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Well into Howard Korder's Sea of Tranquility, Nessa -- a woman in an unsatisfying marriage and suffering from an undiagnosable rash as she's writing a book on archeology -- says to an adulatory Native-American named Milton, "There must be some lesson about life here. I wish I knew what it was." Later, the shriveling Nessa, who seems to embody the playwright's sour message about the way we live now, remarks to her family-counselor husband Ben in regard to their problem-riddled ranch-style house, "Whatever was holding it up...rotted. You need to dig down. See what's underneath."

These ominous lines are land mines that Korder buries in his script and then clumsily steps on himself. Thinking that he's engineering a scathing indictment of contemporary relationships, he's written an overstuffed play that ultimately explodes in his face, leaving an audience to assume -- like poor Nessa (Patricia Kalember) -- that there must be some lesson here and yet wondering what the hell it is. Maybe the remarks of the poor woman with the symbolic rash that spouse Ben (Dylan Baker) can't assuage are meant to imply that the lesson is: There is no lesson. Maybe she, as Korder's mouthpiece, is suggesting that life must be lived as well as possible without our expecting illuminating messages to emerge. Maybe the message is meant to be the Geoff Dyer quote with which Korder precedes his script: "Life is bearable even when it is unbearable. That is what is so terrible; that is the unbearable thing about it."

Though Nessa may be speaking for the author more explicitly than any character ideally should, she's not the drama's focal figure; rather, Ben is the shlub around whom events swirl. This docile fellow is initially encountered as he's attempting to do some family therapy with the fractured unit of Phyllis (Betsy Aidem), Ashley (Lizbeth Mackay), and Josh (Jason Fuchs), who's wearing a t-shirt blaring the slogan, "What Would Hitler Do?" (Kaye Voyce did the costumes but Korder calls for that slogan in his manuscript.) When the session is over, Ben returns home to chat with Nessa and her television-writer brother Randy (Todd Weeks), a compulsive gagster who's holidaying with the couple.

From then on, Korder more or less alternates scenes of Ben's professional maneuvers with his so-called private life. Among the visitors to the house are the above-mentioned Milton and the 16-year-old drifter Kat (Liz Elkins), on whom the increasingly frantic Randy develops a crush. Among the patients seeking Ben's quietly attentive therapeutic assistance -- or so it is at first -- are the nasty and uncooperative prison inmate Gilbert (Matthew Saldivar) and Astarte (Heidi Armbruster), a woman who's trying to extricate herself from some Scientology-related scam in which she's entangled.

It's the pathetic Astarte who sets in motion -- rather later than feels dramaturgically right -- the complications that upset the excessively mild Ben's artificial serenity. The young woman's attempt to remove herself from Scientology's hold isn't as effective as she'd hope. Pulled back to what Korder posits as a sinister grasp, she makes charges against Ben that he realizes will be difficult to refute even though they're untrue. One reason he's glum is that information about Ben's past has come to light and been made known to Astarte's tough mother Adele (Lizbeth Mackay again), who promises to make as much trouble as she can. She does so while things also deteriorate for Nessa, Randy, and Gilbert.

In other words, enough is boiling in the ironically titled Sea of Tranquility to drive three or four plays, and much of the action feels hammered into place with an awkward hand. In the middle of his second act, when he's got a Christmastime gathering going on in Santo Loquasto's earth-tones living room, Korder brings together Nessa, Randy, and others of the homebodies with the glaring Ashley-Phyllis-Josh trio for a true shambles of a scene; anyone who tries to make sense of it is likely to throw up his or her hands in frustration. And as if it's not enough to force Ben's disintegration rather than compose a play that follows logically to that combustible point, Korder then pulls out a sledgehammer and bashes in a redemptive finale that seems to come from nowhere.

In previous plays -- Boys' Life and Search and Destroy, to name two -- Korder has written from a cynical perspective and still managed to be convincing. Part of his success is that he is obviously intelligent, informed, and concerned. The references and allusions in Sea of Tranquility indicate he hasn't weakened in the informed or concerned departments. In the play's speeches -- a few of them discursive monologues -- he refers to a wide spectrum of modern phenomena including esoteric archeology and Nevada's annual Burning Man festival. (Kat's the one who mentions Burning Man, going so far as to rig a small -- and, yes, symbolic -- figure from pots, pans and mesh for the addled Randy to contemplate.)

Liz Elkins, Jordan Lage, Todd Weeks, Dylan Baker, Lizbeth Mackay,Betsy Aidem, and Jason Fuchs in Sea of Tranquility(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Liz Elkins, Jordan Lage, Todd Weeks, Dylan Baker, Lizbeth Mackay,
Betsy Aidem, and Jason Fuchs in Sea of Tranquility
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Yet Korder has lost his balance with this play. His jerry-rigged accumulation of reversals for Ben, Nessa, and pals gives the impression of pushing skepticism for its own sake. It's as if he considers gloom the thinking man's proper stance but then, on second thought, timidly backs away from it. Watching Sea of Tranquility, someone who's seen Stephen Poliakoff's Sweet Panic -- recently revived in London and also about a therapist grappling with the irate mother of a patient -- could very well conclude that Poliakoff has worked from the same suppositions as Korder and found a better way to deal with them dramatically. Also, because Korder's setting evokes memories of Lanford Wilson's Mound Builders and Sympathetic Magic, an inveterate theatergoer may wish that Korder had more of the wisdom about humanity that Wilson's dramas exude.

To promulgate his pessimistic observations, Korder -- with director Neil Pepe -- has rounded up a large and accomplished cast. Pepe mines every nuance he can find in a text that's further illuminated (pun intended) by lighting designer David Weiner. He elicits skillfully shaded performances from both Dylan Baker and Patricia Kalember; these two have very complex journeys to go on, as theater folks like to say. Baker's slow-to-fast burn is done to a turn. Kalember, eventually hobbling around with a cane as Nessa, is crafty about how she allows energy to drain from her body. (Both actors seem to be abetted by clever make-up touches.)

Heidi Armbruster as the voluble Astarte and Todd Weeks as Randy, each handed lengthy arias, hold the stage adroitly, although Weeks might have modulated a bit more than he does. Playing two very different roles apiece, Lizbeth Mackay, Matthew Saldivar (who appears as the hostile Gilbert and his soft-spoken brother), and Atlantic Theater Company fixture Jordan Lage (as a conniving Scientology lawyer and an ultra-hip archeologist colleague of Nessa's) make their versatility register. Liz Elkins as the runaway, Jason Fuchs as the troubled teen, and Rafael Sardina as the confused Milton also belong in the production's plus column. So do Scott Myers with his lighting design and David Yazbek with some turbulent -- rather than tranquil -- music that introduces and plays off Korder's two acts. (Has there even been an Atlantic Theater Company production that wasn't handsome?)

William Wordsworth described poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility." Howard Korder has conjured a similar image with his play's title. Perhaps the playwright needed more of that tranquility to fortify himself before beginning this work.