Chris Whalen and Victoria Malvagno in "North Shore Fish"(Photo © John Beverly)
Chris Whalen and Victoria Malvagno in "North Shore Fish"
(Photo © John Beverly)
Bobby Maloney has been coming to the same fish-processing plant in Gloucester, Massachusetts for years, getting his unemployment card signed to show that he's been looking for a job. "What happens if they have work?" asks a younger man, newly arrived in town. "Never fucking crossed my mind," replies Bobby. In Israel Horovitz's "Sins of the Mother," the latter half of an evening of the playwright's work collectively titled Blue Collar, unemployment is a fact of life; the once thriving fishing town has fallen on hard times and its inhabitants are struggling.

As the play opens, Bobby (T.S. Joseph) is talking to newcomer Douggie Shimmatarro (Francisco Solorzano). Douggie, though only recently returned to Gloucester, was born in the town. Bobby knew Douggie's mother, Louise Martino, who has been dead for several years. Apparently, Louise was something of a scandalous figure, and it's not long before we discover why. The arrival of Frankie (Luca Pierucci) and Dubbah (Gabe Fazio), two more men who need to get their unemployment cards signed, ups the ante; they too knew Louise, and the interconnections between the four men soon become clear.

The ensemble cast works well together and the shifting allegiances between the men are expressed nicely through the actors' changes in physical posture and the amount of distance they keep from one another. Tautly paced by director William Balzac, "Sins" is a funny, engaging, and ultimately tragic tale of lives irrevocably altered by both a depressed economy and the choices and mistakes made by individuals desperate for a way to escape. First presented in 2003 by Horovitz's Gloucester Stage Company in an evening of one-acts shared with playwright Terrence McNally, "Sins" makes its New York premiere courtesy of the Barefoot Theatre Company.

Unfortunately, Barefoot felt that the 40-minute play would not be able to stand on its own. In a misguided attempt to provide a full evening's worth of entertainment, the company has paired it with a lengthy excerpt from Horovitz's 1986 play "North Shore Fish." Also set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in a frozen-fish-processing plant on the verge of closing, the play -- or the excerpt presented here, at any rate -- revolves around a group of workers and their interrelationships. The shuttering of the plant, while a crucial part of the plot, serves more as a catalyst for revealing the animosities and passions amongst the characters.

Most of these feelings are directed towards the foreman, Sal Morella (Gil Ron); he has impregnated several of the female employees, resulting in childbirth for one, abortion and suicide for another, and an impending abortion appointment for a third. "I loved every woman that ever worked for me," says Sal. While he's called to account for his behavior, the play is far from an in-depth look at sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Rather, the subject is treated with a lighthearted jokiness that calls to mind a bad soap opera.

This lack of depth may be more the fault of the acting and directing than the script. Francisco Solorzano helms this longer, first half of Blue Collar and, under his guidance, none of the cast manages to create a fully developed character -- although Chris Whalen as Alfred "Porker" Martino, Sal's subordinate, comes the closest. He has a charming goofball smile and slouchy body posture that help his portrayal, yet he hasn't quite mastered the regional accent that he attempts, and he's unconvincing in his more emotionally volatile scenes.

Solorzano's sluggish pacing doesn't help matters, and he also has a tendency to emphasize the sentimental aspects of the play rather than its grittier elements. It's worth sitting through "North Shore Fish" in order to see "Sins of the Mother," though you'll end up wishing you didn't have to do so.