Sam Abrams is a one-hit wonder. Twenty-five years ago Sam, who slouches at the center of Sirens, the current offering at New Jewish Theatre, wrote a love ballad called "Rose Adelle." Everybody remembers "Rose Adelle," pretty much the same way everyone still recalls "Gentle on My Mind," written by another one-hit wonder, St. Louis-raised John Hartford. In 1967 Hartford's paean to unfettered love became an instant classic. No matter that he never wrote another hit song; one was enough. Hartford liked to say that "Gentle on My Mind" bought his freedom. Its royalties allowed him to live a life without compromise.
Freedom and compromise are very much at issue in Sirens. Sam wrote "Rose Adelle" about the love of his life, then married her. Although they have been living off the profits of that one song ever since, "Rose Adelle" did not purchase freedom. After 25 years with Rose, Sam lives in a prison of his own making. "Every great thrilling thing, every surprise, has happened," he concedes. Despite their barren lives, Sam and Rose have become self-absorbed. "Why can't you figure out what it's like with me?" Sam pleads. "Can you hear me?" Rose counters. Is she kidding? Customers in the bowling alley a half-mile from the Wool Studio Theatre can hear her. Rose's strident bleatings could block out cell-phone transmissions.
As the evening begins, Sam and Rose are at a travel agency contemplating the possibility of a 25th-anniversary vacation. (Her idea.) With this cleverly written opening scene, Sirens is off to a bright start. Scene Two takes place aboard a Mediterranean cruise ship. The writing is still brisk, but already monotony is setting in. If Rose is this tedious for the viewer after twenty minutes, what must twenty-five years have been like for Sam?
When he jumps ship and winds up on an island with a sea siren (the toe-arching Leah Berry) who has read too much Homer, Deborah Zoe Laufer's unconventional script travels into more fanciful areas. But Laufer's ambitions are not sustained by her dialogue. What had been fresh and funny begins to sound strained. The more surreal the action becomes, the less successful it is. By the end of this 90-minute intermissionless evening, Sirens is running on fumes. If Sam regrets his lost life, we regret a lost opportunity. What happened to that delightfully quirky play to which we were introduced in Scene One?
The production, which has been (perhaps too earnestly) directed by Tom Martin, is inconsistent. Bobby Miller brings a savvy sad-sack quality to the hapless Sam. Miller can take a simple line like, "This is a very small island," and infuse it with irony and surprise. Kari Ely's Rose is a crafty accumulation of telling details, but there's no escaping the fact that Rose is a caricature. The more specific Ely makes her, the less likable the character becomes. In comparison to the possessive Rose, Doris Roberts' Marie on Everybody Loves Raymond seems as docile as Mother Teresa.
Perhaps Sirens' shortcomings are accentuated because it follows directly on the heels of Lynn Nottage's Ruined. One senses that the characters who inhabit Ruined played an active role in shaping their own story. By contrast, Sirens has the contrived feel of a play whose conclusion was determined before the first word was written: Sam and Rose exist to be reunited. That's what "happy endings" are about, even when they're wrong. Laufer has a gift for snappy dialogue, but she's not a good listener. She didn't hear Sam pleading for his freedom. Does anyone believe that another hit song would solve any of Sam's problems? So it follows that two people who no longer share anything in common are obliged to spend the rest of their lives together. Romantic comedy? Even Macbeth has a happier outcome than that.