Two years ago, when I saw Azuka’s wonderful production of Shitheads, I marveled that the playwright, Douglas Williams, hadn’t been snapped up by network TV and movies, working steadily writing contemporary comedy.
Don’t get me wrong! We Philadelphians are all the luckier that he’s here, as this prodution of Ship demonstrates—again at Azuka, where Williams is Playwright-in-Residence, and again in the skillful directorial hands of Kevin Glaccum. Williams’ newest work confirms his very special combination of wit and heart. Ship is funny, poignant, and altogether engrossing.
Set in Mystic, Connecticut, the famous early American seaport, Nell (played by the delightful Annie Fang) is a college dropout and general screw-up, who is seeking work as a tour guide on one of the harbor’s famous ships. She’s enthusiastic but also scattered, and seems to dwell in excess—focus doesn’t come easily to Nell, who has had boyfriend troubles, is currently alienated from her mom, and lives under the watchful eye of her far more together sister, Caitlin (Alison Ormsby, excellent).
If Nell—very much a Gen Z-er—has major goals, they revolve around The Guinness Book of World Records. Enter a local boy, Jeremiah (Michael A. Stahler, adorably dweebish), who himself almost achieved just such a record—for the world’s longest fingernails. (Ya gotta dream big.)
It takes nothing away from the engaging originality of Ship to point out that it shares some common themes with Shitheads. Here too, we find a group of outliers in search of something to anchor a life that otherwise doesn’t feel destined for achievement. Williams’ ear for Millennial patois is superb. (The last time I remember being so taken with a playwright’s voice for contemporary speech was in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, now almost 25 years old.)
But his eye for character is even better, and what I admire most in Ship is the effortless way conversations move from funny to sad and back again in a split second. There is a myriad of color and meaning in the writing here, including the title, which simultaneously suggests the thrill and forward momentum of voyaging forth… and the grim fear of remaining forever landlocked.
I do have a couple of small bits of advice. First, the comic material here is so strong that it doesn’t need any extra push from the actors and director. Occasionally, I felt a drier, less energized delivery would actually make the good jokes even funnier, and better underscore the rather serious mood that lies underneath. Fang, often wonderful, has the yeoman’s share of the humor, and I think she can afford to relax a bit.
My second piece of advice: call your agents. I can’t imagine that it will be long before Fang, Ormsby, Stahler, Glaccum, and of course, Williams, are fielding offers from everywhere.
Ship plays through March 15th. For more information, visit the Azuka Theater website.