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Tucson Weekly Sinking Sensation

"Scotland Road" manages to make even the Titanic disaster seem boring.

By Margaret Regan

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  NOW PLAYING ON the big screen is a Titanic that brings viewers the 1912 disaster in all its horrifying visual detail. In the watery holocaust brought to life in director James Cameron's film, steerage passengers frantically claw the locked gates that have trapped them below decks. Victims drop hundreds of feet into the sea as the ship tips over. Survivors succumb to freezing in the icy water, their frantic cries gradually dying into silence.

The film's visceral spectacle is the polar opposite of the austere Titanic play that's coincidentally now on the boards at Invisible Theatre. Scotland Road is a mystery set some 80 years after the fiasco, when a supposed Titanic survivor surfaces on an ice floe in the North Atlantic, and it takes place not on the slowly flooding ship but in a locked interrogation center. Where the movie washes us in a torrent of Titanic images, the play's only visual links to the actual ship are a slide or two of the iceberg that ruptured the hold and a nice wooden reproduction of a shipboard deck chair. Beyond these, everything else this play reveals about the Titanic is through the spoken word.

It's not enough.

Billed as a Gothic thriller, this odd work is an unfortunate combination of tedious and incoherent. Unlike the over-the-top movie director Cameron, who gives us so much Titanic that he actually films the ship's last chaotic hour in real time, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher gives us hardly anything at all. His play floats aimlessly along for 90 minutes until it evaporates in a non-ending so weak one has to wonder whether it's really over: At the end of the opening night performance, theatregoers surreptitiously checked to see whether their fellow audience members were actually putting on their coats to go.

The production's four players gamely try to make Hatcher's creaky script sail, but they are ill-served by its choppy scenes, which director Deborah Dickey makes even jumpier by blacking out the lights between them. Emily Grogan plays the beautiful young woman who's been found by a fishing crew. Dressed in the typical Edwardian clothes of the 1910s, she'll say only one word to her rescuers: "Titanic." But she's not a day over 22: Is she a survivor from the ship who has somehow never aged? After the titillating news of her rescue is broadcast over the world via the tabloid media, a strange man from the Midwest (James Blair) somehow manages to get hold of the young woman for interrogation in a remote location on coastal Maine.

The fellow claims to be an Astor, a descendant of the real-life John Jacob Astor who went down with the Titanic, in an apparently honorable death. The latter-day Astor fiercely interrogates the now-mute young woman. An Icelandic doctor (Amy Lehmann) has come along to look after the young woman, and she protests his cruelty with little effect. Blair's a fine actor who doesn't show to good advantage here; his character is not only irritating, he's incomprehensible. Francesca Jarvis has a bit part as a documented Titanic survivor who's brought in briefly to help in the questioning.

For about the first half of the show, which runs without intermission, the young woman doesn't speak at all, and her silence only compounds the tedium. Grogan does wield her beautifully expressive face to good effect as the others babble around her, but without fresh information from her the play gradually sinks like a lifeboat with a slow leak.

Scotland Road (the title refers to a passageway in the great ship) is intended not only as a mystery but as a philosophical inquiry. Hatcher wants to ruminate on the power of trash journalism (it was to grab headlines that the ship's owners insisted on sailing full speed ahead in dangerous waters), but he has nothing new to say on the subject. And he proposes that disasters provide ordinary mortals with the moral choices that can turn them into great heroes. Astor is envious of his ancestor, who chose death that others might live. He believes that only in such a transcendent moment does one truly come alive. But Hatcher doesn't even make this idea interesting. It's too bad that in his play, so concerned with death on a grand scale, so little comes alive.

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