Rob Campbell and Laura Heisler in The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters at Playwrights Horizons.
Rob Campbell and Laura Heisler in The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, a new play by Marlane Meyer now playing at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, disorientingly straddles the divine, human, and animal worlds as it delves into the muddy nature of sex, love, marriage, and everything in between. Much like our everyday encounters with these dizzying concepts, the characters stumble around, desperately grasping for sturdy philosophies that more often than not lead to dead ends and disillusioning realizations. While potentially thought-provoking for those able to maintain their grip, this frenetic stumbling turns into more of an unmanageable stampede that leaves the audience with a confusing blend of whiplash and vertigo.

Laura Heisler leads the pack of love-starved wolves as Doctor Aubrey Lincoln, a homely and socially awkward devout Catholic who attempts to compensate for her physical deformity (a "leg-length discrepancy") with a platform Velcro shoe that she drags around the stage like a heavy black brick. Aubrey retreats to her faith and its romantic notions to soothe her emotional wounds, praying to the fictitious St. Martyrbride, whose functions as the patron saint of spinsters, childhood infirmity, and sea monsters are perfectly tailored to her specific needs. Through these channels of divine communication, Aubrey becomes convinced that her boozy, dim-witted, and womanizing high school tutee Calvin Little (played by Rob Campbell) is her soul mate, and it is destiny that they will someday marry. Against all sense of reason, Aubrey spends years fighting to get Calvin to the altar, even as he continues to lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate without the least bit of subtlety, all the while failing to account for a mysteriously missing ex-wife who continues to loom over his past.

Meyer's overwritten text and Lisa Peterson's equally exaggerated direction match the extreme characters, placing us in a world we can safely assume is not the one in which most of us live our lives. However, that is the only clue we have to hold onto as we wade through this otherwise ambiguous world. Set designer Rachel Hauck peppers the stage with taxidermied raccoons, deer heads, and other woodland creatures who populate the trees that surround the performing space. As actors periodically creep onstage donning animal masks to join the peripheral forest, we eventually realize that these stage elements are not meant to identify the play's physical location, but rather to serve as thoroughly unsubtle allusions to the characters' base animal natures — more apparent in some than others: The rabidly glaring Danny Wolohan bares his teeth as Calvin's half brother, Jack; the grotesquely sexual Candy Buckley, covered in leopard print (designed by Paloma Young), pants like a wild hyena as Calvin's predatory mother, Helen; and Jacqueline Wright seems to lack even a semblance of humanity as Molly, the daughter of Aubrey's landlady, swinging her body side to side as if banging against the sides of a cage.

Yet, despite Meyer's blunt commitment to this beastly theme, the playwright never fully commits to the heightened world it establishes, leaving us with just a collection of unsettling characters who never come into focus. Rather than continuing to develop the exhausted persons she introduces to us in the first act, Meyer leaves them relatively unexplored as if they were just a few more deer heads hanging on the wall for decoration. When she finally decides to tell us what all of this ruckus says about love and relationships, Meyer all but abandons this world she has spent so much time creating.

A high-voiced clairvoyant by the name of Psychic Tom (played by Haynes Thigpen) offers Aubrey a reading that, in the course of one monologue, spells out many of the play's metaphors and thoroughly analyzes her character's ill-conceived notions about love, depriving us of the chance to unravel this web ourselves. Aubrey and Calvin's seemingly one-dimensional characters also experience sudden jumps as they transition into this more grounded language — though, you can't help but embrace these more introverted moments, as this side of Meyer's voice is far more pleasant and intriguing. Campbell in particular has a standout moment as he delivers a beautifully composed speech in which he reflects on the marriage to his ex-wife. However, the play's sudden turn for the sympathetic feels less of a natural character evolution than it does a white flag of surrender that Meyer waves as she finally lifts up the play's mask to explain what we've been listening to for the last two hours. Rather than enjoying these few touching moments, you instead frustratedly wonder why she didn't just say this all in the first place.