SALEM — Whether you’re talking about fashion, sports, or theater, mismatches can weigh heavily on the outcome.
Take Nikole Beckwith’s “Split — Tales of Escape,’’ now receiving its New England premiere at Salem Theatre Company under the direction of Gary LaParl.
This evening of three short plays, punctuated by two monologues, reveals Beckwith as an arrestingly idiosyncratic writer who can make you laugh one minute at the manifold absurdities of existence, then give you a sudden peek at the abyss that just might make you shudder.
But the STC cast is simply not up to the task of sustaining, much less illuminating, that delicate balance. Talk about split: There’s a grievous mismatch between the copious talent of the 32-year-old playwright, a Newburyport native, and the abilities of the actors who are called upon to execute her vision. With very few exceptions, their performances are tentative, their timing erratic.
This matters, a lot, because the plays in “Split’’ rely for their effects on Beckwith’s sensibility more than on the scenarios she concocts. Her blend of whimsy and melancholy is somewhat akin to that of Annie Baker (“Circle Mirror Transformation,’’ “The Flick’’). As with Baker, rhythm and nuance are crucial in Beckwith’s work — and rhythm and nuance are what this production largely lacks. Consequently, after an initial burst of promise, “Split’’ begins to sputter and eventually evaporates.
In all five works, people are trapped in one way or another and looking for a way out. In a monologue titled “Untroduce,’’ Sara Maurno (the most accomplished performer in the cast) portrays a woman methodically making her way through yoga positions while describing, in a recorded voice-over, her dream of breaking free from the prison of everydayness — and from the equally confining spaces of the self.
“I want to be alone,’’ she says. “Really alone. Myself included. I want to be an . . . essence. Is that a thing people can be? I want to be whatever it is I was before I became an accumulation of everything I’ve done. Or seen. Or am seeing right now.’’ A nice touch, that “Myself included.’’
In “Play for an All White Stage,’’ the best of the plays, a trio of Greenpeace activists (played by Will Neely, Julie Cleveland, and Ariane Grossi), lost and starving in the Arctic after their boat capsized, debate whether they should eat their dead companion (portrayed by Derek Beckwith, the playwright’s father).
The activists have already eaten their shoes (“That was not well thought out,’’ one concedes), leaving them to traipse about incongruously in candy-striped socks (costumes are by Jan Fogle). To pass the time, two of them recite dialogue from their favorite “Friends’’ episodes. Even in the direst imaginable circumstances, the playwright seems to be saying, people stay who they are.
Each of the characters, living and dead, steps out of the action and delivers a brief soliloquy about, among other things, the ways people appropriate the tragedies of others because they want to feel sad, and the uselessness, when survival is at stake, of so much of the knowledge we spend our lives acquiring. “These things I thought made me interesting are actually just taking up space,’’ says Neely’s character. “I’d trade any of it to know if it was snow or sea water you aren’t supposed to drink.’’
Maurno returns for a monologue titled “Barbies,’’ playing a woman who escapes from daily chores by visiting her massive (unseen) Barbie collection. The happier she seems, the sadder she seems.
In “Holiday Play,’’ two adult siblings (played by Neely and Natalie Miller) take refuge in an attic — and in distorted memories of their childhood — from a holiday party their family is hosting. Periodically, their irate mother (Cleveland) storms into the attic, denouncing them and their father (played by Dann Anthony Maurno), who is also hiding in the attic. “Holidays are about forgiveness and acceptance . . . and those are just fancy words for lying and denial,’’ the mother says. “So stop your flimflamming and get in the holiday spirit.’’ Though it’s funny in spots, the play runs out of gas about midway through.
The same thing happens with “Stuck in a Cave.’’ Lisa (Miller) and Gary (Derek Beckwith) are pinned beneath stones in an island cave after an apparent earthquake. Lisa gabbles nonstop, seeming confident that help is on the way; Gary is decidedly less optimistic. As the situation deteriorates, Lisa retreats into daydreams about her triumphant return, complete with a TV newscaster and her own hectoring mother.
These prerecorded dream sequences largely fall flat, dragging the play down with them. Lisa and Gary may be stuck, but, as with too much of this production, it’s the playwright who gets stranded.