Sorry to say, the most dramatic aspect of Mark W. Lee’s new play “Pirates” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is not its subject matter but its setting: the handsomely reproduced deck of a well-worn 18th-Century frigate, complete with rigging and sails.
This is reminiscent of the metaphorical shipboard set for the 1984 Circle in the Square production of “Heartbreak House,” which is not altogether surprising since it was created by the same fine designer, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg. But for a play to be upstaged by its setting is not good news, especially with a title as tantalizing as “Pirates.”
The truth is that Lee’s script, which won SCR’s second annual California Playwrights Competition last year, gets diverted by the very device it pursues. The play has a dual plot that draws its inspiration from the true account of two women--Anne Bonney and Mary Read--who donned men’s clothing and lived as pirates in the early 18th Century, but it places its predominant emphasis on a much paler contemporary parallel: university politics.
Helen Raymond (Joan McMurtrey) is a tenured professor of history. She’s restless in her job and writing a book about pirates whose primary focus is the uncommon story of Bonney and Read.
Coincidentally, the department is looking at candidates for a new position within its ranks. The finalists are Rebecca Skolnik (Katherine Hiler)--bright, brash and offbeat--and Michael Dobbs (Larry Paulsen), standard issue and dull. Stuffy, chauvinistic department chairman Stewart Crawley (Richard Doyle) takes an instant dislike to Rebecca, while Helen is quite taken by her nonconformism. But to bring Rebecca on board she’ll need the vote of her associate, Nathan Taylor (Robert Sicular), who doesn’t like to make waves.
The lines in this struggle are soon clearly drawn. To underscore Helen’s turmoil, Lee’s play travels back and forth between the story of the women pirates aboard ship, fighting their own more physical battles in a male-dominated world, and the petty competitiveness of the male-dominated university.
What may have looked promising on paper is too pat on stage. Helen’s mental anguish remains mostly uncharted and the unsatisfying ending can be seen coming.
While there is nothing trivial about the issue itself--equal rights and power for women--it is not explored in theatrically interesting ways. The contemporary characters, including Helen, are anemic, neither passionate nor intriguing enough. The idea that an issue is strong enough to carry a play only guarantees it will be trivialized.
Another problem lies in Lee’s decision not to connect the present directly with the past. Helen and Anne skate around the same subjects, but don’t penetrate them and don’t really engage in a dialogue that might have given us more insight into their respective concerns. They remain on parallel but fatefully separate tracks.
While Lee writes persuasive action for the pirates in some well-researched period slang, these scenes remain subordinate to the contemporary ones and reveal only a fraction of what they might. Considering that they’re by far the more vivid and theatrical, it’s a waste of potential excitement.
Martin Benson has directed the production ably, but he’s stymied by the structure and shallowness of the script. The pirate scenes are strongest (though not strong; the sword fights are particularly weak), with Katherine Cortez a robust, appealing Anne Bonney and Sicular providing good balance as her craven partner, Jack Rackham. Hiler is fine as Mary and Rebecca, though she enjoys more latitude as the latter. Paulsen and Doyle are effective in a variety of roles, including a surly pirate named Fletcher (Doyle) and a weak-kneed parson (Paulsen).
But “Pirates” is essentially a misnomer since it is more a play about academic dons than a play about pirates. Too much of it feels calculated rather than spontaneously conceived. And too much of what its provocative title causes us to expect remains undelivered.