Sea of Terror, written and directed by Emmy Award winner Sam Catlin, began its life in a workshop production two decades ago and still features some period references: one couple preparing for a visit from another puts on CDs as the evening’s soundtrack and calls a landline to try to reach them. Very 2003!
But swap in a Spotify playlist and cell phone, and this could be a contemporary play. Its dark humor and casual cruelty feel of the moment in undeniable ways.
The workshop version of Sea of Terror predated the much-lauded God of Carnage, and mirrors it in a number of ways. Both run 90 minutes with no intermission. Both feature two couples with uncomfortable reasons for getting together, questionable moral codes, and a tendency to argue either into dead ends or as a gateway to full-on fisticuffs. Puking even plays a role in both.
Alice (Julie Dretzin) and Ben (John Ales) are alone onstage for the first half hour, preparing for a get-together with “friends” whose visit they dread. Alice fusses and henpecks, Ben whines and panics. Why are they doing this again? After all, “Life is a relentless sea of terror and peril.” Ben calls Alice weird and paranoid and Alice responds, “I hope so. I hope I’m not right about anything I’m thinking.”
Then Doris (Amy Scribner) and Danny (Paul Schulze) show up to prove how prescient Alice was.
Like God of Carnage, Sea of Terror has a title that at first glance seems way out of context for what is essentially a drawing room play. From friendship to marriage, from the mundane topics of bathroom cleanliness to what to serve and wear when entertaining at home, Sea of Terror pokes vicious fun at social norms and its own characters. This comedy of manners is almost always funny, even as propriety goes the way of Doris’ jalapeno popper.
I laughed, I cringed, and ultimately I faded. Sea of Terror has many undeniably hilarious—and even recognizable—moments. But its outsized mean-spiritedness starts to wear. As its characters treat each other with disdain devolving into disgust, bickering and false fronts that felt familiar become increasingly unpleasant; ironically, this weakens their bite.
Three cast members (all but John Ales) participated in the original workshop production of Sea of Terror, as did Joanna Colbert, who co-produced with Julie Dretzin. Their chemistry and talent do justice to the clever script and bring it to life in ways that almost overcome its inevitable takeaway: people suck.
Sea of Terror runs through Oct. 29 at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 2539 Santa Monica Blvd. he performance schedule is Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm. There will be no performances on October 12-15. Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased here.