Jonathan Wallace's The Turtle Tattoo is an ambitious undertaking that attempts to fathom the psychic scars of two young people whom fate has brought together on a beach in Jamaica Bay, Queens. Spike (V. Orion Delwaterman) is an emergency medical technician who is volunteering at a nature sanctuary because his full-time job of rescuing lives has left him spent and confused. Jillian (Elisa Abatsis) is a grad student in marine biology working to save the sea turtles that come to the beach to lay their eggs. At the start of the play, Spike and Jillian are asleep in chairs while being fussed over by two other characters, Red (Samantha Payne Garland) and Blue (Julio C. Pe単a), who seem to be gods, angels, or demons -- we're never quite sure.
Although the play's crisis purports to be the safety of the turtles -- their eggs are being devoured by raccoons -- that's really just a frame for Spike's and Jillian's backstories. It seems they just can't stay awake, and whenever they fall asleep, they're visited by Red or Blue in guises such as an abusive, alcoholic father; a coke-snorting mother; Spike's sassy Latina lover; his cold, distant white girlfriend; and a slew of others (Pe単a and Garland are excellent in their continual character changes). Since we're perpetually seeing flashback after flashback, it's difficult to care about the scenes set in the present, although the dreams and nightmares are somehow bringing Jillian and Spike closer together. Of course the turtles also function as a symbol of this bond, and we soon discover that each character has a turtle tattoo (a symbol of "stability, order, and self-discipline," Spike tells us), with Jillian's being in a place she'd rather not reveal.
The Turtle Tattoo would do better with a streamlined plot and less narcolepsy; the audience is smothered in all the dysfunction and symbolism. The play ends in a final scene of revelation that's abruptly overshadowed by an explosion in downtown Manhattan. That's right, to top it off, Spike's last day with the turtles also happens to be Sept. 11, 2001.
Presented by Howling Moon Cab Company and Samantha Payne Garland as part of the Midtown International Fringe Festival at the Workshop Jewel Box Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., NYC. July 21-Aug. 6. Schedule varies. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.