It's often said that every great play, in some fashion, deals with home: finding one, losing one, figuring out one's place in the world with or without one. You see it in everything from Oedipus to Hamlet, with Willy Loman and even Beckett's two tramps.
Steven Drukman's The Prince of Atlantis may not introduce characters of that stature to the literary rolls of western civilization, but his play is similarly steeped in the concept of place, both personal and familial. In its world-premiere production at South Coast Repertory, helmed in deceptively measured tones by Warner Shook, one of America's finest directors, Drukman's ordinary-seeming characters struggle mightily with the ties that bind, ones that are never too far from fraying.
Though suffused with moments of intense emotion, the play is also a rollicking good time. Its weighty concerns of finding—or keeping—one's place in a complicated, heartbreaking world radiate life through four sharply drawn personalities: two deliriously over-the-top characters that approach The Honeymooners' Kramdens in their verbal sparring; an earnest younger man trying to discover his biological parents; and easily the play's most complicated figure, a fractured, far-too-kind soul forced to make the toughest decision of all.
The Prince of Atlantis at South Coast Repertory, www.scr.org. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sun., 2:30 p.m. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m. Through April 29. $20-$68.
And it's all framed through a syntax that few people outside a small neighborhood in Newton, Massachusetts, even know exists: "Lake Talk." It's from the Nonantum neighborhood, one of those working-class melting pots into which Italians, Irish and French-Canadians were tossed. The resulting vocabulary sounds Bostony in accent, but the words are a mixture of Italian, English, Roman, and street slang from the 1930s and '40s.
Overchay is bullshit. Scoff is eat. Gash is an effeminate male. Toss that in with such Boston-specific words as hoopy (crazy), belagers (beer) and mamaluke (jackass), and you have a play dealing with the secrets, lies and complicated histories of families everywhere—but sounding unlike anything you may have heard.
Nothing screams comedy as does a play that begins in prison. That's where Joey (a tempestuous John Kapelos) is spending the next nine months, due to some shady dealings at the Boston fish-importing company he has built into a small empire, the Prince of Atlantis. His younger brother, Kevin (Matthew Arkin, who bears no small resemblance to his father, Alan Arkin) seems far softer than the rough-hewn Joey. He floats through life self-medicating, with frequent allusions to time spent in the "looney-bin" indicating some serious issues.
Kevin seems relegated to taking orders from his brother, who constantly reminds him of how he has cared for him since their parents were killed by a drunk driver. The younger brother's latest assignment? He needs to communicate with a 30-year-old man who has recently contacted Joey: his son, Miles (an empathetic Brett Ryback), whom Joey says was put up for adoption after a drunken high-school tryst upon a sailboat.
Though he has never seen Miles, Joey is ecstatic. Twice divorced and with no heir, the incarcerated man sees a perfect opportunity to groom someone to be the new king of Atlantis.
But there are two problems: Joey doesn't want his son to know he's in prison, and his girlfriend and business partner, Connie (a shrill and irritating, if eminently likeable, Nike Doukas), has a say in the future of the company.
Kevin, running interference for his older brother, pretends to be Joey in an email to Miles. He says he'd love to meet his "son," but he's doing business in Vietnam for nine months. Kevin's not the most quick-witted guy, and even though sworn to secrecy, he spills the goods to Connie, turning Joey's overchay into a life-changing turn for everyone involved.
Though he's the most subdued, confused character in the play on the surface, Arkin's Kevin is a marvel of restrained complexity. Every moment you think you've got a handle on him, a new revelation arises, threatening to unravel the elaborate network of small fibs and big lies the play's foundation rests upon.
It's a constantly entertaining and heartfelt play, one in which surprises pile upon one another. And though the constant use of Lake Talk sometimes created auditory sound bumps, Drukman skillfully interweaves Shakespeare's Hamlet through the proceedings via constant allusions and incorporating some of its motifs. The result is an intoxicating brew of rough-and-tumble, working-class jargon and literary heft.
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The biggest nod to Shakespeare's little play, surprisingly, isn't found in the most obvious spot: a son caught up in familial intrigue. It's far more personal and lies in Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy. Issues of self-worth, one's purpose, the question to retire from life or tackle it head-on—these are the real questions of Drukman's play.
And the fact that the play's hero rises from the lowest rung of challengers gives it an underdog twist difficult to resist.
This review appeared in print as "Lake Talk: South Coast Repertory gets hoopy with Shakespeare in The Prince of Atlantis."