SET IN A DEAD-END sailor's saloon, Edward J. Moore's The Sea Horse performs like a particularly well-worn bar story. Rough, profane, and realistic tavern owner Gertrude welcomes home her current lover Harry from his most recent stint at sea. Having built a relationship based on alcohol, sex, and occasional tenderness, Gertrude has her world disrupted first when Harry expresses a desire to settle down, and again when he tries to find out the reasons for Gertrude's resistance to the idea.

Gertrude, with her palpable self-loathing and hidden past, is by far the more interesting character. The play is designed for her to dominate the action, a fact which probably led to the initial interest in the piece by the female-driven Sirens Theatre Company. The problem with Moore's play is that few of Gertrude's secrets are interesting, and none are surprising. When Gertrude reveals she's not only been made barren, sexually assaulted, and physically abused, but was also involved in the circumstances surrounding the death of her ineffectual but well-meaning father, one begins to fear the creation of a black hole caused by dense, overlapping clichés. Furthermore, the second act's dramatic tension suffers egregiously from Harry's lack of even hackneyed complexity, and gives Gertrude little of substance to push against.

The actors turn in admirable performances. Shawna Wilson exudes presence as Gertrude, and skillfully and subtly handles the sudden shifts in her character's mood. Jason Phillips does his best work with Harry's slightly daffy speeches, lending the audience insight into Gertrude's affection for him. However, neither actor seems to inhabit their character; any chance for verisimilitude, placing this incredibly broad story in an interesting, specific context, is lost by readings of nautical language and salty slang that sound like actors attacking poetry rather than real people expressing themselves. Still, the actors have done the necessary emotional groundwork, and Moore's choice of cliché to end the play -- two people holding one another -- is at least an affecting one.