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A CurtainUp Review

Recent Tragic Events

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I used to wake up thinking 'what am I going to do today?' Now I wonder 'what's going to happen to me?'
--- Waverly
Heather Graham<br>
Heather Graham
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Another play, inspired by the major tragic event in our recent history, the suicide plane attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has arrived Off-Broadway. Aptly named Recent Tragic Events, Doug Wright's play marries oddball Seinfeldian humor and philosophical questions about whether our lives are shaped by free will or a series of random and often coincidental events over which we have no control. The playwright's often sharp dialogue and observations made quite a splash when the play opened at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. last fall; enough so to nab a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding New Play and the 2003 Steinberg New Play Commemorative Citation from the American Theatre Critics Association.

While I agree with many of the positive comments made by my colleague Dolores Whiskeyman when she saw the play in D.C. (the review ) , the Playwrights Horizon production, once again directed by Michael John Garcés but re-cast and re-staged, raises yet another and no doubt unintended question: Can a sock puppet standing in for the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates upstage gorgeous blonde movie star Heather Graham?

The answer is, I'm afraid yes. Heather Graham's stage debut as Waverly, a Minneapolis ad executive with a penchant of underlining everything she says with "excellent" is not especially auspicious. She's gorgeous and likeable, but she's hardly a match for the puppet (ably manipulated and given voice by Colleen Werthmann).

The actor who does outshine the puppet is Hamish Linklater. His character, a bookstore manager named Andrew, maybe a nerdy, nebbish kind of guy but Linkater's acting does all the heavy lifting on the blind date that serves as the plot foundation.

The way Wright links the familiar romantic plot situation with the 9/11 tragedy is to schedule that blind day for the day after the attack, September 12, 2001 and giving Waverly a twin sister who may or may not have left her Fashion Institute of Technology studies to take a job in the World Trade Center. Thus while the date is on, it turns into a hanging out session that includes two neighbors (Jesse J. Perez doing little to make an obnoxious version of Kramer either convincing or likeable, Werthmann fine as his almost catatonic girlfriend) and a surprise visit from Waverly's great-aunt whose plane has been diverted to Minneapolis. Oh yes, and lots of wine and beer drinking!

The playwright's use of this specific tragedy to ruminate on how chance and free will often seem to battle for control over the course of our lives is valid, he over illustrates his theme with coincidences that stretch credulity to its utmost limits -- Andrew's having met Waverly's twin on a trip to New York and feeling responsible for her possible death, Waverly being a Trollope aficionado and, given the casting of the gorgeous Graham as the lead, why she would need a blind date. Worse still Recent Tragic Events is overrun with gimmicks that spoil both the oddball humor and the tension about the fate of the twin sibling.

The Oates sock puppet is the most obvious bit of gimmickry. However, this works because it's an apt metaphor for the state of humanity without free will. The whole business about Oates being Waverly's great-aunt leads to some very funny and incisive dialogue by Oates as channeled through Werthmann. It also provides a hilarious turn for Linklater in which he, having kept up with Oates prodigious output of books while Waverly owns all but has read none, gives a crash course in the Oates oeuvre just as she's about to make her entrance.

The maneuver that instantly proves itself too clever for its own good involves a stage manager (Kalimi A. Baxter doing a nice job with an impossible role) who appears first to announce that a flip of the coin by an audience volunteer will determine what will happen every time the audience hears a bell ringing and after the intermission to deconstruct this premise. I rather liked her final appearance when the whole set is deconstructed but this small theatrical coup comes too late to make what has gone before theatrically and emotionally persuasive.

Other reviews of Craig Wright's Work: Recent Tragic Events in DC
Molly Delicious

Other reviews of plays inspired by the events of 9/11:
The Guys
The Mercy Seat

Recent Tragic Events
Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Michael John Garces
Cast: Kalimi A. Baxter(Stage Manager), Heather Graham (Waverly), Hamish Linklater (Andrew), Jesse J. Perez (Ron) and Colleen Werthmann (Nancy).
Set Design:Adam Stockhausen
Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Original music and sound design: Scott Myers
Running time: 2 hours includes one intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage, 416 W. 42nd St. 212/ 279-4200
9/05/03-10/12/03; opening 9/28/03.
Performances: Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 & 8 PM and Sundays at 3 & 7:30 PM.
Tickets are $50. Student Rush Tickets will be available for $15 (cash only, day of performance).
PReviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/28 matinee performance

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