A dash of wit helps lighten post-9/11 `Events'

THEATER

TheaterColumn

March 18, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Craig Wright's post-9/11 play Recent Tragic Events would be chilling under any circumstances. But opening at Fell's Point Corner Theatre a day after the terrorist attacks in Madrid, the play took on an extra chill.

Wright set this play on Sept. 12, 2001, but in Minneapolis, not New York. The drama focuses on a young couple who decide to go through with a prearranged blind date. Andrew, however, is suffering from a case of jitters far beyond the usual first-date nervousness, and his date, Waverly, is preoccupied with efforts to reach her New York-based sister, who hasn't been heard from since the World Trade Center bombings.

A playwright who owes a strong debt to Thornton Wilder (a debt first evidenced in his widely produced play Pavilion, mounted by Everyman Theatre last May), Wright includes the character of an Our Town-like Stage Manager in Recent Tragic Events. He also uses the play as a forum to examine larger philosophical questions, chief among them free will vs. fate.

This is weighty stuff, and the play does suffer from occasional ponderous lines ("Time is everything" or "I don't know where the chances stop and the choices start anymore"). But Wright leavens his thematically hefty script with humor, recognizable characters and offbeat touches. For example, the character of author Joyce Carol Oates, who is supposed to be Waverly's great aunt, is played by a sock puppet sporting a curly black wig and oversized glasses.

The plot's tension is heightened after we learn the reason for Andrew's skittishness: Coincidentally, he met Waverly's sister in New York a few weeks earlier and learned something about her that her family doesn't know. Even so, actor Michael Leicht overdoes Andrew's nervous mannerisms, which seem all the more overwrought in comparison to Keith R. Snipes' unflappable, laid-back portrayal of Waverly's musician neighbor.

Jane Steffen's depiction of Waverly - a young woman teetering on the edge of hysteria - is a credible portrait of the gargantuan effort it takes to maintain a modicum of normality in extremely abnormal conditions.

Barry Feinstein's direction deftly balances the play's broad emotional range (a hilarious scene in which Leicht's Andrew rapidly summarizes the plots of more than a dozen Oates novels is like a quiz show on amphetamines). And Margaret Swanson, the cast's fifth and final member, does an admirable job in the dual roles of a mostly silent character and the puppeteer who operates the far more talkative Joyce Carol Oates puppet.

The puppet reinforces the notion of nothing seeming quite real in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and of our lives not being in our own control. The set - co-designed by the director, Roger Marshall and Sharon Weaver - achieves a similar effect. By situating Waverly's apartment in front of a star-covered cyclorama, the set design suggests a sense of being uprooted and alone in the universe at the same time that it harks back to Wilder.

Other elements of Wright's script - such as an audience-participation coin-toss orchestrated by the Stage Manager at the start of the play and a prolonged second-act debate about free will - feel overly precious and self-conscious.

But for the most part, the contrast between the ordinariness of a blind date and the angst of post-9/11 America makes this an eerily involving drama, particularly after the recent tragic events in Spain.

"What if it all happens again tomorrow, somewhere else?" Waverly says near the end of the play. What indeed?

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 11. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-276-7837.

A fond farewell

At Sunday night's final performance of The Producers at the Hippodrome Theatre, Andy Taylor, who plays the role of accountant Leo Bloom, gave a gracious curtain speech, which, though delivered extemporaneously, he re-created for this column. Here's an excerpt: "I think I speak for all of us here when I say what an honor it's been to reopen this beautiful theater. ... Personally, it's been a thrill for me to see my name on the same marquee once graced by the likes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Long John Holmes. This is now a world-class venue, and we all wish you success in this continued renovation of this neighborhood."

As to the numbers, The Producers played to 82.12 percent of capacity, grossing $4,541,220, according to Marks Chowning, executive director of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (which includes the Hippodrome). "Based on the five-week run, this averages just over $900,000 per week, something a show hasn't done in Baltimore ever in our recollection," Chowning said.

Staged readings

Four plays, including a new script by 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, will receive staged readings in Arena Stage's "downstairs" series over the next four nights. This is the schedule: tonight, Passion Play, Part 3, by Sarah Ruhl; tomorrow, Huracan, by Cruz; Saturday, The Winning Streak, by Lee Blessing; and Sunday, False Start, by Peter Hanrahan.

The readings begin at 8 p.m. and take place in the Old Vat Room at Arena, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington. Tickets are $5.

In other news from Arena, Regina Taylor's Crowns - which sold out its run earlier this season - will return to the Washington theater July 27-Aug. 15. Based on the book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, the small-scale gospel musical was the best-selling show in the history of Arena's Kreeger Theater.

For more information about the "downstairs" series or Crowns, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

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