Scotland Road is performed in one act and lasts only 85 minutes, and those are the two best things I can say about it. The prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher would have done well to toss it before showing it to anyone in 1993, after he wrote it. But it somehow made its way to Ambler, where Act II Playhouse is trying, and failing, to make sense of it.
The play is about a young woman who is discovered sitting on an iceberg in the North Atlantic, clad in early-20th-century clothes, and uttering a single word: Titanic. The script encourages a lot of meaningless theatricality, which just looks silly. Oh! The emotion of it all!
A rigid and nasty man (played with a stilted, overblown delivery by Peter Schmitz) has the stranded woman brought to the coast of Maine and placed in small, bland rooms with surveillance cameras. The man, named John, proceeds to menacingly interrogate her, trying to get her to say anything other than the name of the doomed ship. But why? Even when we find out, we don't know.
He employs a doctor (a flat portrayal by Judith Lightfoot Clarke), if she is a doctor, to preside over the woman's recovery. Or maybe the doc is a medical front for John's strange, forcible imprisonment of the woman. We, the befuddled audience, can only guess. John brings in an old woman, said to be the last surviving Titanic passenger, to trick the young woman into - just what? You tell me.
If Hatcher's play - which unfolds on Melissa Guyer's suitably cloying, gray set, to the background of Matthew Aaron's unsuitably foreboding music - is an allegory for something, he hasn't dropped a clue. If it's an examination of who's authentic and who's not - the only theme that makes even a passing appearance in Scotland Road - it's a muddled one; how can you examine authenticity in a play that is itself a fraud? Wait a minute . . . maybe that's the point.
Emma O'Donnell finds a way to portray the stranded woman with a nice blend of innocence and confusion despite the script, which forces her, late in the game, into a wholly different persona. Cynthia Raff, as the elderly woman brought in to confront our heroine, gives the single believable performance.
The play is done with a series of quick, choppy blackouts, some of which were too long Friday on opening night. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but, during the blackouts, we didn't have to confront the script. I'm not sure how Act II's artistic director, Stephen Blumental, was able to deal with such far-fetched nonsense when he was staging the play, which is billed as a mystery. It sure is.
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by Stephen Blumenthal, set by Melissa Guyer, costumes by Jessica Risser-Milne, lighting by James Leitner, sound by Matthew Aaron. Presented by Act II Playhouse.
The cast: Peter Schmitz (John), Judith Lightfoot Clarke (Halbrech), Emma O'Donnell (the woman), Cynthia Raff (Miss Kittle).
Playing at: Act II Playhouse,
56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, through Feb. 18. Tickets: $25-$40. Information: 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro.