Nathan Johnson and Derek Staranowski in The Mermaid

(Photo © Doric Wilson)
Nathan Johnson and Derek Staranowski
in The Mermaid
(Photo © Doric Wilson)
"If time is an infinite thing, does the direction have to be forward?" asks a character in Mark Finley's The Mermaid. This intriguing question is not as well developed as it should be in this flawed but enjoyable work. Presented by TOSOS II, the play explores a host of issues including adoption, gay relationships, life in the theater, and the consequences of difficult decisions. Its experimentation with time is manifested primarily through two different plot threads, set in different eras, whose relationship to each other becomes clearer as the play progresses.

In 1962, Judith (Rachel Eve Moses), a 21-year-old freshman at an Indiana college, auditions for and gets the title role in a production of Ondine, all about a mermaid and her love affair with a mortal man. The play within the play is directed by Evelyn Ducane (Gail Dennison), a perceptive acting teacher who offers her students the kind of advice that she herself is reluctant to follow. Judith's relationships with her co-star Reid (Joe Tuttle) and her best friend Lee (Paul Caiola) become rather complicated as the opening of Ondine approaches, and all three characters must deal with the inevitable fallout.

Closer to the present day, in 1998, Martin (Derek Staranowski) celebrates his 35th birthday with his actress friend Amy (Karen Stanion) and his long-term boyfriend Ken (Nathan Johnson). Martin is adrift in life and seems to have an alcohol problem that he has not yet acknowledged. Ken wants the two of them to adopt a child, but Martin is reluctant. An adoptee himself, he wants to find his birth mother and establish his own family history before making the decision to move forward with the adoption -- or maybe he's just purposefully delaying things because he doesn't want to grow up and accept the responsibilities of parenthood.

The Mermaid switches back and forth between the two stories. While the opening of the second act promises to be more playful with the temporal structure, it remains fixed; none of the characters cross over from one time period to the other. (Apparently, forward is the only direction in which time can go.) Finley demonstrates a sharp comic wit, especially when penning in-jokes about the theater. He's less adept at creating dramatic moments; the dialogue tends to become bloated and the plot details predictable in the more serious scenes.

The members of the ensemble cast play their parts well enough but do not always give that little bit extra to add dimension to their characters. An exception is Dennison, whose vitality lights up every scene she's in. Moses is emotionally grounded and present in a scene wherein Judith calls home to her parents to let them know that she's in trouble, but at other moments, the actress indicates her character's thoughts and feelings. Throughout most of the play, Tuttle offers a fairly bland and stereotypical peformance as a dumb jock, yet he demonstrates that he's capable of much more when Reid rehearses a scene from Ondine with Lee's help. Johnson overplays his character's earnestness in many of his interactions, but the chemistry between him and Staranowski burns white hot in a scene where Ken strips off his boyfriend's shirt.

Chris Weikel's costumes don't distinguish the two time periods as well as they could, but the outfits for the production of Ondine are rather nice. Michael Mucci's set design is fairly minimalist, relying on a ghost light, a pair of wooden boxes, a stool, and some chairs to establish a number of different locales. There's no lighting designer per se -- Aaron David Blank is listed as "lighting consultant" -- so this aspect of the production is also fairly basic.

Directed by Barry Childs, the production is slow-moving at times. Part of the problem is that the resolutions of the two stories seem fairly easy to guess, resulting in a lack of dramatic tension. The Mermaid is pleasant enough to watch, and the play's humor keeps the audience involved, but there seems to be potential within the script that remains untapped.