Hugh, the central character in Peter Coy's new drama "Building a Boat," is still in love with his bitter ex-wife. He doesn't want to have anything to do with their disturbed teenage son, whom the ex is trying to unload on him. And he's wracked with guilt over the testimony he gave regarding some business misdeeds, which landed his partner in prison but left Hugh a free man.
And then, things get bad.
"Building a Boat," which is being premiered by Charter Theatre, has enough melodrama for several lifetimes. The main story belongs to Hugh (Kevin Adams), a damaged, solitary sort who is hoping he'll find some catharsis in building a small sailing vessel known as a Swampscott Dory. He's kept company by a younger man named Conn (Michael Skinner), an increasingly irritating character who mostly chants Latin prayers and recites Bible verses -- though when he does drop the priest routine, it's only to pester Hugh about how wrongly he handles everything.
By the end of the performance, it's been murkily suggested that Conn -- perhaps unsubtly short for "conscience" -- only exists in Hugh's head. But the gambit doesn't quite work.
Adams's Hugh may tend toward the strong, silent and distant type, but as the story unfolds it's clear he does care about his family and is willing to talk about the feelings he's wrestling with. Yet Skinner's Conn alternates between goofy and self-righteous, spewing his religious talk with enthusiasm yet often wearing the tsking, pained expression of a holier-than-thou busybody. Hugh might have a little voice nagging at him, but it's hard to imagine it's anything like Conn.
"Building a Boat" is more successful when it flashes back to happier times, when Hugh was still married to Deirdre (Hope Lambert). There's genuine warmth between them as Hugh's memories of their early dates and marriage play out, even though some of Coy's dialogue induces a little eye-rolling. ("Hold me, Hugh!") These moments, though, cause another Act 1 problem by making Deirdre's scheming abandonment of Michael more difficult to believe.
The most compelling scenes here, however, are between Hugh and his son, Michael (Denman Anderson), whose discovery of his father's reluctance to become his caretaker piles on more misery to Michael's quickly worsening -- and at first mysterious -- physical and mental illness. Anderson's convincing turn as the depressed and increasingly delusional teen is gut-wrenching, as Michael veers in and out of reality while Hugh helplessly watches. Adams gives a strong performance in a well-written role that never falls into cliche.
As the end of "Building a Boat" draws nearer, its initial long-windedness and grab bag of issues get streamlined into a strong family drama. The symbolism of Hugh's woodworking quest, at first a seemingly inconsequential distraction, also comes more sharply into focus. But none of it is quite enough to save the unevenness of the work, with its moments that hold the audience's interest turning out to be ultimately too few.
Building a Boat by Peter Coy. Directed by Chris Stezin. Set, Victor Stezin; lighting, Thom Seymour; costumes, Keri Schultz. Approximately two hours. Through Nov. 6 at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, 1556 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Call 202-333-7009 or visit www.chartertheatre.org.