Gandiello’s ‘Oceanside’ a promising, flawed debut

Joey Collins, Carolyn Baeumler, and Allyn Burrows in a scene from "Oceanside."  Photo by Meghan Moore.

Joey Collins, Carolyn Baeumler, and Allyn Burrows in a scene from “Oceanside.” Photo by Meghan Moore.

LOWELL — It’s exciting when a new playwright  gets his first fully-staged professional production. 

It’s even more exciting when that world premiere boasts an excellent cast, a strong set of designers and an accomplished director such as Melia Bensussen.
And while playwright Nick Gandiello shows plenty of promise, his world premiere play “Oceanside” now at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre currently merits the orange construction cones of a work in progress.
“Oceanside” is a tense family drama in which no one appears capable of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The Long Island home of Gwen (Carolyn Baeumler) and her new educator husband Kevin (Allyn Burrows) in the peaceful town of Oceanside is suddenly thrust into turmoil during Easter Week 2014 with the sudden arrival of Gwen’s ex-husband Tommy (Joey Collins).
Tommy is agitated and has been drinking since daughter Ginnie, a college art student, hasn’t been heard from in several days.

Carolyn Baeumler, Joey Collins and Allan Mayo in "Oceanside." Photo: Megan Moore

Carolyn Baeumler, Joey Collins and Allan Mayo in “Oceanside.” Photo: Meghan Moore

Gwen doesn’t think there’s a big problem, since Ginnie has gone incommunicado before, but it turns out she knows a lot less about  what‘s going on in Ginnie’s life than Tommy. Tommy files a report with the police.
Burrows, the artistic director of the always-interesting Actors Shakepseare Project troupe, is the superintendent of the local school district, and is the very model of competence, stability reliability and moderation, which is a stark contrast with the somewhat chaotic life of Tommy, a truck driver by trade who‘s looking to open “a dive with a sense of taste” but doesn’t appear to have either the means, the talent or the will to see it through.
And while Gwen may have remarried, she still has personal issues, and her ex-husband also has issues — he spends virtually the entire production with a beer in his hand — and those issues, along with the stress of a missing daughter, threaten to drive a stake between Gwen and Kevin.
Gandiello will ask some important questions through his characters. How much do parents know — and how much should they know — about their children?
How much should spouses know about each other? Should there be any secrets, and if so, what is allowable?
There are also family skeletons rattling around in Tommy’s closet that cause Gwen and Tommy to worry even more about Ginnie and her whereabouts.
Allan Mayo and Caroline Lawton are John and Erin, two detectives who enter the scene and who are obviously holding back something they know about the situation.
They ask to see a piece of Ginnie’s artwork, in this case a painting of a girl with a missing face.
Everyone is going out of his or her way — perhaps too much out of their way — to tiptoe around the possibilities of what might have happened to Ginnie
Gandiello has crafted interesting characters, his structure is sound and his dialogue packs a punch, but information  I considered vital as a playgoer was MIA.
How did Gwen and Kevin get together? He is a well-educated professional and there isn’t much about Gwen’s background in that regard. I would have loved to know how they met,  what kinds of things they had in common that led to the marriage.
And — it’s possible I missed it — what kind of work did Gwen do?
Gandiello chooses to puts some steel in the spine of Burrows’ Kevin, who is fed up when Tommy threatens to wreck his relationship. “I won’t let you f*** up my house,” he bellows at Tommy.
Collins as Tommy is a whirling bundle of intensity always just about to go off, and Gandiello unleashes him for a memorable second-act monologue.
Amelia Broome is a first-rate actress and dialect coach but this production has the cast laying on the accents thick and heavy, and at times it seems a contest between four of the characters — Gwen, Tommy, Erin and John — to see who can lay down the thickest working class, New York/New Jersey accent.
Gandiello made the decision to play it close to the vest in this piece. In an interview included in the press notes was asked what he had learned that he would carry with him in the future, Gandiello said “a playwright’s choice to withhold can be as powerful, if not more powerful, than to provide — whether it be information, or event — sometimes withholding can be even more engaging than just giving forth.”
That decision to withhold comes with a responsibility and it’s a delicate balancing act.
Withhold too much, and concern and caring for the characters and their situation — and indeed, their realization of what the situation itself is — can wither and die.
If we don’t have enough information, it can affect the credibility of a character or situation.
Bensussen coaxes strong work from her cast, and the pacing is just fine.
Gandiello’s talent was recognized first at national workshops and conferences, and his is a welcome and talented new voice on the scene, but I can’t help thinking that “Oceanside” would be a better piece and more audience-friendly if he were just a little bit more forthcoming.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre world premiere production of Nick Gandiello’s “Oceanside.” Directed by Melia Bensussen. Scenic design by Judy Gailen. Costume design by Deborah Newhall. Lighting design by John Malinowski. Sound design by David Remedios. Through March 8 at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre.