There’s a certain air of the Coen brothers to The Albatross 3rd and Main, currently playing at the smaller of Park Theatre’s two spaces. The setting is similar (small town America at an indeterminate point in the last 20 years), the characters are familiar (people who try hard but are down on their luck) and the plot is similarly hyper-real. However, this production unfortunately lacks the Coen brothers’ panache, wit or satirical bite and ultimately fails to deliver on its huge promise.

Set in a general store on the Eastern seaboard, the show follows Gene (Hamish Clark), recently divorced and dealing with it grimly and quietly the only way he knows how; Lullaby (Andrew St Clair-James), a former boxer who has taken one too many knocks to the head, and Spider (Charlie Allen), a small-time criminal out to make a quick buck. They are thrown headlong into a metaphor of gargantuan proportions. Early in the first act, Spider purports to have accidentally killed an eagle with his car. They spend the rest of the play figuring out what to do with it, and in the process bump up against some of the fundamental questions of modern American identity.

This thematic strand is the most successful and developed aspect of the work. The symbol of the eagle, standing simultaneously for the powerhouse of the state and the traditions of the first nations, is an ingenious plot device, and brings out plenty of discussion and debate around the place of Native Americans and the role of the white settlers in their culture. Through layering of allusions to and quotations from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner the eagle is revealed not to be a cash cow, but a metaphorical albatross that punishes the trio for their deceit and machinations, and simultaneously indicts the American nation for their treatment of the indigenous population. The play makes other, currently relevant, observations on overlooked working class Americans and makes a pass at race relations as well (although with less subtly and depth than might have been appropriate).

While Simon David Eden has devised an excellent conceit, and the actors are fully convincing in their respective roles, other aspects of the performance are far from successful. The cadences of the dialogue especially begin to grate; the characters spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the plot to each other and repeating each other’s lines, which spoils what should have been steadily increasing tension considerably. The play is perhaps least comfortable when it comes to humour:  a hackneyed joke about call centres falls flat, as does a supposedly amusing digression on ice cream. These are unnecessary departures from the narrative. With a central idea as strong as this one, you don’t need distractions.

The Albatross 3rd and Main is pitched as a tragic-comic farce, however it would have achieved something else as full-blown high tragedy, an enquiry into the state of the nation from the perspective of the lowest orders. Instead, what we get is a kernel of brilliance surrounded with an overblown plot and digressive dialogue. Still worth seeing, but ultimately unsatisfying.

The Albatross 3rd and Main is playing at the Park Theatre until February 4.

Photo: Sacha Queiroz