There are indeed scant bright spots one can point to in Sands, which opened Sunday night at the Barrymore, the first production by writer/director/former escort Willa Ferreyra. For one, it does eventually end, though this, especially by hour two, was not a given, not something to be counted on, as some sacrosanct article of faith. In addition, there is a sort of ribald audacity to producing a play set in a pile of sand called Sands that does indeed caress—without outright tickling—my funny bone. And Willa herself, who I met backstage slightly before this assault on reason began in earnest, does seem possessed of a wry wit, and a self-awareness not often so proudly displayed on or off Broadway. She’s going to need both her wit and self-awareness to survive this sandy debacle, but I’m rooting for her. Decency is a beautiful, fragile thing in a young playwright. Decency is, after all, not something you’d assume of someone romantically involved with the mercurial Connor Roy, eldest son of Waystar Royco founder and CEO (and enemy to human progress) Logan Roy. Connor Roy has thrown his hat into the presidential ring, launching a quixotic campaign predicated on boredom and a flat tax, and it may be that in a year and a half Willa Ferreyra will be writing her next play from the second floor of the White House. Stranger things have happened. At least once or twice.
Sands is the story of five late-20-somethings who are on their way to the wedding of a couple they hate. These 20-somethings have clever noms de plume like “Mr. Big Dreams” and “Ms. Deep Regret” and “Mr. Shithead.” These youths inevitably get lost and, of course, start wandering deeper into the desert. Tensions rise. Secrets are revealed. The vitality of somnambulant millennial humanity set against a sandy inhospitable backdrop. So, the trenchant question is this: Exactly how many scenes of people kicking sand does a play need? If you answered, as a sensible patron of the arts would, “One, maybe two at most,” you will be in for a crushing disappointment. How many times must a character, crushed by ennui and boredom, fall to their knees and punch sand over and over again? “I hate this goddamn sand!” was admittedly a funny line … the first three times it was uttered. And all the sand songs clumsily inserted into the proceedings. “Sandcastles” by Beyoncé. “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. “Wet Sand” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The one sincere moment of “liftoff” that the play achieves comes right before the (first) intermission, courtesy of a Gregorian chant version of Darude’s “Sandstorm” that scores a fiercely realistic sand-eating competition.
Unfortunately, the meandering plot and confusing ethos is not the only culprit of on-stage homicide, as the performances in Sands are uniformly unbalanced, running the tangled gamut from “truly bad” to “completely unwatchable.” Indeed, Chloe Hannah, who plays Ms. Deep Regret, the central character, at times barely seemed to know her lines. There were many moments when she just didn’t respond to her costars. They looked at each other, their eyes dancing, their thoughts some hidden maelstrom, and then they’d just walk around in the sand some more, leaving entire conversations unfinished. This happened many times. The whispers I heard from those in the know claim the actor meant to portray Ms. Deep Regret—Jennifer Something, I didn’t catch a last name—very abruptly absconded to some Celtic bacchanalia, or in the words of one member of the production, “Yeah, she like, got on a plane to go to some rich asshole party in Scotland or Ireland, I’m not sure which ... what’s the difference? She didn’t really understand the sand anyway.”
Which, of course: a final word about the sand in Sands. The action in Sands—set in three distinct time periods, all involving copious, even ludicrous amounts of sand—takes place in the desert. And yet, the sand that covers the stage at the Barrymore like an old Persian rug or a Spanish soccer player’s five o’clock shadow, is clearly not desert sand. The hues are wrong, the color tainted. Sandy brown, earth yellow, field drab, golden Namibian sunset, all those familiar shades and tints found in dunes and deserts the world over, are totally absent. Instead, we’re treated to something brittle, something off-white, clunky and alien—sandbox sand, construction site sand, the gray dead tooth of the sand world. I’m not a sand snob, but it was hard to concentrate on who was betraying whom and why everyone would occasionally speak as though they were 1920s gangsters during Act III on account of all that disgusting sand they were stomping around in. Unfortunately, the contumelious aesthetics were just the chaser to the double shot of absinthe that involve what this humble theater critic will refer to as “hygiene issues.”
To my eye, and the keen eyes of others as well, the sand, those myriad heaps and mounds of workaday sand from Uncle Frank’s construction site, would occasionally shift in a way I can only describe as absolutely gross. It is my own bad fortune to have been sitting so close to the stage that it became my very own front-row Golgotha. That there were sand mites ensconced in these grainy ziggurats I have no doubt. In fact, I have the raw and red scratch wounds to prove it. That these creatures have infested that sand is doubly upsetting. First, it dovetails with other whispers I’ve been privy to, the persistent rumors of the production’s “total lack of hygiene” caused by Connor Roy’s paradoxical penny-pinching. Secondly, and infinitely more troubling, is that these sand mites—pesky innocents essentially, brought here against their will—will be forced to watch Willa Ferreyra’s Sands over and over again, imprisoned in some hellish temporal time loop, trapped in the darkest possible version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.
In conclusion: Loved the sand. Loathed the disgusting show. And to be honest, I didn’t love the sand.
Tickets: Through Oct. 23 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036
Run Time: 2 hours, 47 minutes.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.