When a group of friends and neighbors on a Pacific Northwest island go caroling, they create an amusing cacophony: Warbling in mismatched tones and keys, they stand next to each other but not together. So goes the community in Abe Koogler’s new play, “Deep Blue Sound” — friendly and supportive but made up of individuals who can’t quite connect.
Although this is an ensemble show, part of Clubbed Thumb’s popular incubator series Summerworks, and one with fairly evenly distributed narratives (though most are sketchily drawn because of the number of characters crammed into a concise 90 minutes), a woman named Ella emerges as the emotional center.
Partly this is because she has the most poignant story: She is dying of cancer and has decided to make use of Washington State’s Death With Dignity Act. And partly it’s because sad, scared, angry Ella is played by the brilliant Maryann Plunkett, who can turn the simple act of staring into space into a devastating insight.
Ella is part of a small group of locals who are trying to figure out why a pod of orcas that has been visiting the surrounding waters for generations is now missing in action. Leading the rather ineffective investigation is Annie (Crystal Finn), the “symbolic mayor.” The amateur whale detectives include Ella’s friend John (Thomas Jay Ryan) and the horse groomer Les (Jan Leslie Harding), both of whom have a tendency to reach out to unlikely strangers.
The terrific actors in Arin Arbus’s production all manage to fill in the script’s outlines, and constantly wring out unexpected readings that prompt a chuckle here, a lump in the throat there (even if at times it’s hard to tell which characters the actors are playing). Finn, for example, lands a laugh out of nearly every line, whether she’s portraying a daffy mayor who is a little drunk on power, or the lack thereof, or a mother flustered by her son asking what she thought of his dance practice — the mom’s hesitation is simultaneously heartbreaking and very funny.
If anything links all of those people, it’s not so much their being islanders as it is an aching loneliness. That they are trying to figure out what happened to orcas, which are remarkably social animals, is among the nice touches that Koogler (“Kill Floor,” “Fulfillment Center”) has sneaked into his group portrait.
He must be praised for not hitting us over the head with the heavy-handed psychologizing that burdens so many shows, even if “Deep Blue Sound” does spin its wheels a bit. A fairly conventional heart beats underneath the quirky stylings, and the orca plot feels as if it’s a pretext to get the characters together. Admittedly, it also tees up a lovely, melancholy coda about the reassuring comforts of a familiar home — something anxious islanders can especially appreciate.
Deep Blue Sound
Through June 15 at the Wild Project, Manhattan; clubbedthumb.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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