Moon at the Bottom of the Ocean

Photo by Jeremy Bivens

The central metaphor in Bryn Magnus’ entertaining and frequently very funny new play Moon at the Bottom of the Ocean is contained in its title, though it isn’t completely clear until the second act of the play. It would be difficult to write about this show without alluding to it; thus I am not going to bother trying. And anyway, it’s not really a spoiler because it isn’t really anything to do with plot or characters; it’s a metaphor for what happens to them…and what too often happens to many of us. Do you have a talent that you don’t show people because you believe that it isn’t as good as it should be? If so, this play could be about you. I’m pretty certain it’s about me.

Magnus’ play centers on two married artists. Paul (Jeremy Bivens) is a literary novelist who has never shown his work to anyone, not even Leslie (Vicki Walden), his wife of fifteen years. She, on the other hand, is very open with her talent—she is an excellent improvisational singer and spends the day singing and humming made-up songs—but she has never done anything with it (like write the songs down or try to record them), though He Who Keeps His Light Under a Bushel just can’t understand why not.

Each of these characters is having a personal crisis. Paul, perpetually writing for no one but himself, is incensed when he discovers that a much younger writer who uses the cafe across the street (where Leslie works) as an office has been given a MacArthur Genius Grant. Certain he can write rings around the quotidian prose of this thrice-published author, he ends up hiring a PI (Julia Williams) to try to find out what the secret of his success is. Meanwhile, Leslie has had the great fortune of meeting one of her favorite singers, a woman called Sissa Soul-Soul, and, in the exuberance of the meeting, she does what she is prone to do: she invents wordless songs for her, singing the way Sissa’s face, hands, eyes, etc. look and feel to her. This impresses the recording artist so much that she invites the cafe worker to sing background on her new album, about to be recorded at a storied studio nearby. As excited as she is by this opportunity, Leslie is also terrified.

When Paul asks her whether she will know how to sing the songs, she answers as she always has: the song will tell her how to sing it. But how? he asks. And what if it isn’t what Sissa Soul-Soul wants? Paul’s personal imposter complex spills out onto his wife, whose free-form life has never included such a thing. Suddenly, though, she starts to wonder whether he might be right…and of course (as tends to happen in these fables) she loses all connection to her singing…just in time for the recording session.

Director Jenny Magnus keeps things simple in order to keep the focus on her actors. Apart from slides announcing the titles of the scenes, there is nothing unusual in her production. Two seating areas—a dining room table and a desk—indicate whether the scene takes place in the apartment or in the PI’s office, and generally only one area is lit at a time by designer Stefan Brun. The titles also tell the audience when scenes will involve flashbacks, which illustrate the long and happy relationship between Leslie and Paul, who once (apparently) was as free-form as his wife.

Williams’ PI, like her client, keeps things very close to the vest. She investigates by watching carefully and meticulously recording everything she sees and hears in a notebook…in great detail. Her frequent recitations of her target’s mannerisms as he gets ready to write—including brushing back his hair, taking one first sip of his coffee, and forming a “cathedral” with his fingers—is part of her process. She will not allow anyone to read her notes, but (unlike Paul) she tells him everything she has written down, waiting for something to become clear, for an epiphany to occur. (She is way more like her client than either of them realizes.)

The title (which is also the title of Paul’s perpetually incomplete book) alludes to the same idea as the Biblical reference I made earlier. Like a light hidden beneath a bushel, a moon at the bottom of the ocean is prevented from shining. It may still be lovely and even romantic, but no one is ever able to know. By the end of the play, Williams’ PI, on finally reading some of Paul’s novel, states that it is very good, but his own insecurity, and his imposter complex, can’t acknowledge this.

All three actors are excellent. Walden plays free-spirit well, though I’d argue that her costume (the actors chose their own) doesn’t reflect that quality as much as her movements and voice do. Bivens brings to mind early Richard Dreyfus (Goodbye Girl era) as he slides between loving husband and easily-irritated writer and irritatingly determined guy-with-advice-to-give. Williams, whose character is nothing like the free-spirits on the other side of the stage, betrays her emotions and reactions not with big bold movements but with tonal changes and subtle facial expressions. Interestingly, her quiet, taciturn style seems contagious: both Paul and Leslie are generally much calmer in her presence…though Paul does lose control at one point, so there’s that.

Moon at the Bottom of the Ocean is a solid addition to Curious Theatre Branch’s 35-year-old legacy. I’ve already found several connections between it and my own life; I expect that you will as well.

Moon at the Bottom of the Ocean is presented by Curious Theatre Branch and is now playing at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave, until Sep 23. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see or

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