Rachel Hauck’s set for Surf Report, at the La Jolla Playhouse, tells much of the story by itself. A sleek unit structure, upper walkway and open lower area, serves as a house, an office, even a hospital room. All lines are straight, the corners sharp. The dark, aqua-colored floor, however, looks like a swimming pool under ominous skies. And on the rear wall, a giant, Banzai Pipeline–shaped wave only Laird Hamilton could ride, arcs and spumes from left to right. It could be a photograph, or a symbolic tsunami that, when combined with the floor, recalls Amy Hempel’s line: “Just because you’ve stopped sinking doesn’t mean you aren’t still underwater.”
Back in the early ’90s, Bruce invented a wrinkle cream and made enough riches for ten brass rings. Now he’s a surfer/venture capitalist. But as his portfolio grew, he didn’t. Sudden wealth let him purchase a room full of paintings and have a plush home in La Jolla. But it also magnified his narcissism and infantile dependence on others. His door and doorbell define him: the bell plays the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl”; though convinced he’s always in the right place at the right time, Bruce doesn’t know how to open the door.
Judith has worked for Bruce for 17 years — without health benefits — and micromanages his life. What looks like a symbiotic relationship is codependence in the extreme: he has financial influence but no clue; she has control, to a degree, but no influence. Theirs resembles a marriage that makes no sense from the outside, yet somehow functions. In the best of all possible worlds, Judith would have invented the cream.
Her daughter Bethany vows to be different, to break away. A photographer (who doesn’t “do portraits”), she’s in Brooklyn hoping to study under a current master. Every time her cell phone bleeps, she prays it isn’t Judith. In Annie Weisman’s new play, it soon becomes clear — actually, too spelled out — that Bethany and her mother are as dysfunctional as Judith and Bruce are a working pair.
Surf Report’s a study of dependencies. The characters are obligated, against their wishes, to other people. Most of these relations have financial ties, and when Bethany and Judith try to assert themselves, both become, in Bethany’s phrase, “sucked back” by an undertow.
Annie Weisman, a native of Del Mar, is becoming a chronicler of the local scene, especially affluent, beach community San Diegans. Her Be Aggressive, about cheerleaders — at Torrey Pines High? — and Hold Please, about women in the workplace, show a sharp eye for details and an ear for contemporary slang and crackling dialogue. And both display a genuine ease with comedy.
Surf Report feels like a transitional work: a move toward more serious ground. Weisman’s as funny as ever, but when she nears her themes, the characters and confrontations become stock and predictable. It’s almost like looking through a microscope. Up close, everything clicks. The status details — Bruce wears “organic cotton briefs,” for example, and wears new black jeans just once — are au courant, and local references are a hoot. As the lens pulls back, however, particulars blur. Instead of living characters, Bethany, Judith, and the others read like subjects in a sociological casebook.
One exception: spacey Jena. A former semi-friend of Bethany’s, Jena’s, like, a total ditz (“seriously, I’m really stupid,” she says, “I’ve been tested”) but with a kind of Tourette’s syndrome and speaks her mind, sometimes with haywire, other times spot-on remarks. Wearing the Complete Works of Surf City Clothiers, and played with center-target accuracy by Liv Rooth, whenever Jena’s onstage, the play both perks up and relaxes. She gives the equivalent of surf reports, but about the sad, crazy fates of her classmates. Jena, however, is the only character the playwright feels comfortable with.
Take away Mercutio and you still have Romeo and Juliet. Take away Jena, and Surf Report hasn’t much to offer.
The males are ciphers. Gregory Harrison makes all the right choices as Bruce — a perky surfer so self-centered the only change possible is to become more himself — but the result is just a black hole. Played by Matthew Arkin, Jena’s husband Hal’s a couch potato whose only function is to have a convenient illness that brings the family together (has Weisman ever written a positive male character?).
Linda Gehringer and UCSD grad Zoe Chao do what they can with Judith and Bethany. Both do assertion well. But since they’re trapped in a melodramatic schema of good versus evil, they can only assert so far. That wave looming behind them turns out to have been a tsunami all along. ■
Surf Report by Annie Weisman
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Directed by Lisa Peterson; cast: Matthew Arkin, Zoe Chao, Linda Gehringer, Gregory Harrison, Liv Rooth; scenic design, Rachel Hauck; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Ben Stanton; composer, sound designer, John Gromada
Playing through July 11; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.