Signature Theatre debuts witty romantic comedy ‘The Gulf’

Signature Theatre debuts witty romantic comedy ‘The Gulf’

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Signature Theatre’s The ARK theater offers the perfect frame for D.C. playwright Audrey Cefaly’s world premiere “The Gulf,” directed by the theater’s director of new works Joe Calarco.

A revealing existentialist exercise in the power and destruction of love, this intimate play is set in the Alabama delta and features two lovers, Betty and Kendra, who become stranded in their small motorboat in the shallows of the state’s Dog River.

Kendra (Maria Rizzo) has separation issues. Her father was her mentor, and since his death, she suffers from fear of desertion. She cannot admit she is hopelessly in love for fear of loss.

Her lover Betty (Rachel Zampelli) wants commitment, which she defines as a career, marriage to Kendra, a home and eventually children. She tries to get Kendra interested in fulfilling her potential by reading her “What Color is Your Parachute,” a self-help book on careers.

But Kendra, a fatalist, has no such ambitions. She is content to fish on her off hours and work at the local sewage plant, ignoring Betty’s lofty aspirations and punishing her by withholding sex.

“I want you to stop thinking,” she tells Betty. “‘Cause when you’re thinking, I’m miserable!”

The couple alternately argue and reconcile in a macabre merry-go-round, accepting that they will almost never agree on anything, but are too emotionally tied to each other to part ways.

Passions and jealousies ignite accusations and retribution, with dialogue as vitriolic and vicious as George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

“Nothing’s good enough for you,” says Kendra. “You just want to rearrange my life.”

The humor is part deadpan, part caustic, with massive doses of wry, Southern-styled zingers. Rizzo and Zampelli offer up flawless and funny performances coupled with skillful pacing and brisk patter.

Sound designer Kenny Neal chooses Delta Blues to set the tone and Aretha Franklin as background to the lovers’ Mardi Gras reminiscences of meeting at a honky-tonk bar. And scenic designer Paige Hathaway provides a slow-turning, skeletal motorboat as metaphor for the couple’s maneuvering the rocky coast of love.

This is a funny, cerebral and edgy comedy.