Sutton Vane's groundbreaking 1923 play Outward Bound is receiving a glorious revival by the Keen Company under the superb direction of Robert Kalfin. The play is often uproariously funny yet it also deals seriously with issues of class, spirituality, and redemption. While the action is set in the early 1920s and there are period-specific references to such things as the British Empire, the piece does not feel at all dated in this production; Vane's crisp, fresh dialogue is brought to life by a talented ensemble of actors.
On board the ship is Tom Prior (Gareth Saxe), an alcoholic who readily proclaims himself as a man of "weak character." He meets up with a social acquaintance, Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Laura Esterman), who has rigid standards in relation to social class and position. She is therefore appalled by the presence of Mrs. Midget (Susan Pellegrino), a charwoman, and even more aghast that passengers of various social classes are not segregated aboard the ship. Her most ready ally would seem to be businessman Mr. Lingley (Michael Pemberton), who happens to be a former employer of Tom's. A clergyman, Rev. William Duke (Clayton Dean Smith), is also present, as are Ann (Kathleen Early) and Henry (Joe Delafield), two young lovers who harbor a big secret. Attending the passengers is the ship's steward, Scrubby (Wilbur Edwin Henry), who is sympathetic and helpful yet frustratingly enigmatic at times.
It may sound a bit contrived that many of the passengers either know or have unexpected connections to one another; but it's eventually revealed that time works differently in this place that they're sailing through, so it's not so strange that these particular individuals all wound up in the same boat. As they sail onward, they alternately antagonize and try to help each other. None of them knows what will happen when their journey ends.
The standout member of the cast is Esterman, deliciously catty as the high-society matron. The actress conveys much through murmured remarks, the positioning of her head or hands, and the emphasis that she places on words such as "church." Saxe is also quite good; he never overplays his character's drunkenness and demonstrates a remarkable vulnerability when Tom comes face to face with the examiner (Drew Eliot) who will decide his final fate. The remainder of the performances are solid with the exception of Delafield. The young actor tends to indicate Henry's emotional states rather than conveying them in a truthful manner, and his British accent is unconvincing. Compared to the rest of the cast, he comes across as amateurish.
Though Nathan Heverin's set shows the constraints of a small Off-Broadway budget, it is nevertheless attractive and well-suited to the play. Theresa Squire's costumes are wonderful, particularly the outfits worn by Esterman's Mrs. Cliveden-Banks. Sam Doerr helps to convey the spookiness of the situation in his sound design, with muffled drums sometimes audible under the dialogue.
One of the best aspects of this production is that it presents a classic with which many of today's audiences may be unfamiliar. The running time of the performance is two-and-a half hours with one intermission, but it doesn't seem anywhere near that long. The action is perfectly paced by Kalfin, who adeptly handles the shifts in the play's tone.