The Promethean Theatre's premiere production of Red Tide opens with three actors in a vaguely unnerving tableau, stretching across the Mailman Theatre's small stage. Mathew Chapman is sitting to your left, waving a baseball bat around his scummy little apartment, freaking out about some dream he just had. Is there a body in his bedroom? Did he kill somebody last night? He wonders about these things, and you've got to wonder about them too. Murderer or no, the dude's way unstable. "Did I really say, 'I hope you die, you fucking whore bitch?' " he asks himself, horrified. "Oh! She'll never go on a second date with me!" Who "she" might be, we don't know.
Meanwhile, Deborah L. Sherman is standing behind a scrim center stage, dealing with her own species of freakiness. Applying lipstick, wearing fuck-me pumps and a slinky black dress, resting one elevated foot on something you can't see (my guess was a toilet seat), she seems to be made of nothing but sexy calves, curves, and husky come-hithers. She's musing to herself about her youth as a lonely, homely girl and being snubbed by the boy she had a thing for. "I filed a sexual-harassment complaint and got him fired," she says, and you laugh because she's not ashamed.
While this is going on, Andy Quiroga's to your right, practicing his smile in a dressing-room mirror. He's a TV newsman, and he's preparing a bit about red tide. He tells us what shellfish is safely edible and what shellfish isn't. "Don't go for that moonlight swim," he advises. Then he goes through it all again. He looks and sounds like a used-car salesman, and his repetition of the bit, with changed emphasis, rearranged eyebrows, and the intimation of a Jack Nicholson grin, bespeaks an archetypal megalomania so outsized that it's lovable.
What the hell do these people have to do with one another? Not much, really — though Quiroga plays Gilbert Sullivan, the regrettably named brother of crazy Chapman's character Alan Sullivan, the circumscribed lives of the men do not intersect so much as bounce off of one another, and the same goes for Sherman's Angelica Maren. Gilbert's head is full of ego, Alan's head is full of ghosts, and Angelica's head is full of revenge — with such bulging beans, there's no room for anybody else. Even when the tableau disappears and these people are brought face to face, they're never much closer to one another than they were at the beginning, mulling over their private obsessions in solitude.
But they are brought face to face, and their interaction is so weird that the primary question on the audience's mind morphs rapidly from the prosaic "What's gonna happen?" to the much-cooler "What is reality?" It's interesting to wonder if Gilbert is really as big an asshole as he seems when preening in the mirror (and it would appear that he is; when chatting with his little brother about women, he says, "Never underestimate the power of a great set of tits. Never trust the tit. The tit will lick you."). It's vastly more interesting to wonder if one of the brothers might be a murderer, which brother it might be, if all the people onstage are crazy, or if anything you're hearing is true. The greatest virtue of Juan C. Sanchez's play is that it lets you know, from the get-go, that you don't know what the fuck is going on, and it makes your uncertainty exciting.
What we think we know is this: Gilbert hasn't seen his brother lately. Alan's too big a flake to pin down — perennially unemployed, prone to hallucination and delusion, brain-pickled by virtually every anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, and pharmaceutical psycho-stimulant known to man. Gilbert, meanwhile, isn't very nice to his little brother. He speaks down to him, belittling his meager aspirations and even more meager achievements every chance he gets. But Angela's a peach. Alan meets her on the beach, where she's apparently gone to freak out after losing her job at a day-care center. A flighty failed actress with an overdeveloped mothering instinct (or so it would appear), she gloms on to Alan's simplicity, neediness, and space-cadet charm. They begin dating.
But what happens then? Is Angela a raving harpy? Is somebody a killer? Has anybody even died? The onstage action flashes unpredictably from the linear events of Alan and Angela's courtship to brief moments from the brothers' shared childhood to emotionally constipated meetings of the brothers as adults, when they seem incapable of communication. All of these scenes constitute a slow circling of the trauma that made broken men out of bright children, and as the proceedings get darker, less is certain: The more we learn about what happened to these people, the less we know about who they are, and the character of Angela becomes so mercurial that she ceases to seem like a single person at all. Sherman's portrayal is like a time-lapse video of a nuclear meltdown. She begins by talking about child care in terms of "loving moments of exchange," and by the end, she's a witch, barely human, a creature of screaming nerves and loathing, telling Gilbert that "talking to you is like walking through a tunnel of shit."
As you might hope, this seemingly willful strangeness is no mere artsy wank. In fact, it's meta: Describing his life, Alan, in a lost, lonely, little-boy voice, says, "Something happens, and then something else." No causation, no reason; events just twist away from you "like a vanishing point." And that's just the way Red Tide works. There are no connections, and everything is frightfully arbitrary, just like the tragedies that turned the people onstage into these disintegrating monsters without the capacity to explain themselves; just like the red tide that appears out of nowhere in the ocean, killing whatever swims into it. Where is the border of all this foul nastiness? How to get clear of it? Juan Sanchez doesn't know any more than we do, but it's awfully nice of him to ask.