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Review: In ‘Terra Firma,’ a Wee Wet Country on the Brink

“We are becoming like all the other nations,” the queen says in a moment of despair. “We have unhappy prisoners, indifferent citizens and the young people refuse to reproduce.”

Actually, the nation she rules with her husband, Roy, has just one of each of those things: one prisoner (a recent hostage, good at chess), one citizen (a doofus interested in pyrotechnics) and one young person (the 17-year-old prince, currently away on a mission).

That’s because Terra Firma, as the queen has named it, is a micronation: a self-declared kingdom located on an abandoned 6,000-square-foot antiaircraft platform six miles out to sea. It may not boast much land or populace, but it has a national anthem, a tatty flag, a centralized health service and a constitution — if the queen could ever complete it.

Terra Firma,” the play by Barbara Hammond about this country, likewise seems in need of more work. Ambitious and smart, it is not yet coherent, at least not in its world premiere, which opened on Thursday at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Shifting from whimsical comedy to light satire to lumpy allegory, it quickly strips its gears and stops cold.

The whimsy, coming right at the start, proves especially deadly in Shana Cooper’s staging for a newly founded theater company called the Coop. Mild humor about the micronation’s pretensions to real statehood seems especially vaporous on the imposing set (by Andrew Boyce) and amid the foreboding ocean roar of Jane Shaw’s sound design. But at least the absurdity of the premise has a historical precedent: Terra Firma is based on a real place called Sealand, established in the late 1960s off the east coast of England.

The humans seem less precedented. As the citizen (John Keating) and Roy (Gerardo Rodriguez) hoist their hostage (Tom O’Keefe) onto the platform and proceed to interrogate him, we might almost be watching a Three Stooges routine, except with less finesse. Clumsily handled as well is the back story: The citizen and Roy, believing that recent nearby explosions are the work of enemies bent on their destruction, are desperate to understand the danger they’re in.

That danger, we quickly understand from the script’s broad hints, is ecological. When the young prince (Daniel Molina) returns from his reconnaissance mission, he brings with him a sliver of a hedge to decorate the homeland; it is apparently the last piece of greenery left in the world. And when a weather-beaten diplomat (T. Ryder Smith) arrives to negotiate the hostage “crisis,” we learn that the reason he is the first to heed Terra Firma’s calls for help — delivered in bottles cast out to sea — is that there may be no one else left to answer.

The queen, unwilling to credit such dire suspicions, doubles down on her queenliness. Because she is played by Andrus Nichols — the marvelously grave Elinor in Kate Hamill’s “Sense & Sensibility” — a character that could easily turn camp instead comes across as somehow both deluded and brave. Despite her stained blouse and paste tiara, she practices holding her right arm aloft whenever she appears, as if searching for the perfect salute to comfort a grateful people.

This pathos gets at what the play does best: It understands and in some way forgives human limitation. It fares less well when it attempts a critique of rulers who reject reality even if it’s a reality they helped create. A parallel is suggested between the characters’ pride and the disaster now engulfing them, as if Terra Firma were the industrialized West in miniature, unable to steer away from the brink of climate change. In an author’s note, Hammond writes that she saw in the story of the real Sealand “a metaphor for the human predicament.”

But that comparison is under-drawn and illogical; a few people stuck on a massive steel life raft for several decades cannot have much to do with rising sea levels and whatever else is eating the rest of the world. The Terra Firmans aren’t nuclear physicists who built faulty reactors like the characters in Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” a much more sophisticated treatment of the same theme. They’re refugees.

So, in a way, are the members of the Coop, recently formed as a kind of breakaway republic from another theater company, Bedlam. “Terra Firma,” the Coop’s inaugural production, matches its mission to stage plays “that resonate with timeless themes and universal truths,” but in this case resonance isn’t enough.

That’s a problem built into the bloated mash-up of genres: Comedy is based on particularizing human behavior, but allegory is based on generalizing it. In trying to be both, and an ecological tragedy as well, “Terra Firma” pulls in too many directions. Though the cast — especially Nichols, O’Keefe and Smith — is strong, and Cooper makes lovely stage pictures on the rusty platform, there’s something thin and self-defeating about the resulting circular logic. Like most life raft stories, “Terra Firma” doesn’t hold water.

Terra Firma

Tickets Through Nov. 10 at Baruch Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, thecoopnyc.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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