Though much art has been produced regarding current politics and foreign affairs, few plays have looked hard at the first day in this new political era. Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events, directed by Frank Gallagher and produced by Heller Theatre, describes a few hours in two young Minnesotans' lives one day after September 11th.
As dramatic as the content can be, Gallagher has not directed a maudlin play. It is a riotous comedy punctuated by moments of quiet tragedy. In Recent Tragic Events, humor, anger, empathy and booze help the characters stave off the fierce desperation and panic of those dark days.
Waverly (Ione Michelle Blocker) and Andrew (Joel Cheatham) have been introduced through a mutual friend, and have previously agreed to go on a blind date together. After September 11th, they decide not to cancel the date because, after all, life must go on.
After Andrew arrives at her apartment, Waverly stalls. She hasn't been able to get a hold of her sister, who lives in New York City, and can't rest easy until she's heard from her. Andrew agrees to wait. Suddenly Waverly's neighbor, the grey-haired and pony-tailed Ron (George Nelson), crashes the date.
Waverly decides she wants to stay in for the evening, but, desiring company, asks Andrew to stay. Though uncomfortable with the situation, he agrees, and as the evening passes their relationship grows increasingly complicated by a series of revelations.
On one level, the play demonstrates the tension between free will and fate. There is much talk of these notions, especially in the second act. The philosophy debated between Ron and Waverly's aunt, who also crashes the date, is less interesting than the stage business that plays out as they argue. (Hint: Keep an eye on the playing cards. Wow!)
Ron's monologue during this scene seemed as though the author was using the character as a mouthpiece for his own political opinions. Though Ron rightly criticizes the media for its morbid sensationalization following September 11th, the monologue is too long, too shallow.
It is the only rough spot in the production.
The dialogue is witty and the roles are finely acted. Blocker makes Waverly's idioms and gestures her own. It's a challenging role, too, as Waverly is dealing with the awkwardness of meeting a new romantic interest along with the stress caused by her missing sister and frantic mother. Consequentially, Waverly has a few violent mood swings, and Blocker makes the emotional transitions neatly.
Nelson as the aging hippie also makes Ron's idiom his own. He's physically laid-back even though he's dealing with a lot of frustration about the state of the world. He handles it with both a warm humanity and a chilly sense of irony. He's not the hippie cliché this character could have been. He's much more human than that, even though Nelson invites us to laugh at some of Ron's more out-there ideas. (I especially loved the early conversation about wine.)
Waverly describes Andrew as "wishy-washy," and Cheatham has, luckily for us, taken that description and run with it. Too often in productions, actors seem to miss these little textual clues about their character, and when the line crops up during the play it makes one stop and say, "Who are they talking about? That doesn't describe so-and-so at all."
But when I heard Waverly call Andrew "wishy-washy," I said to myself, "Yes! That's the word I was looking for!"
Andrew's personal apocalypse, and the production's climatic moment, hinge on his ability to recognize and face this weakness in himself. Cheatham's solid physical work highlights Andrew's skittishness and trepidation, and drives us up to and through that pivotal moment. Andrew is not a character whose physicality comes from his core; he's all limbs and shoulders. He tucks his chest underneath himself to keep his heart protected. A few of his gestures even reminded me of a turtle's retreat.
Watch him during that final moment to see how his posture and carriage change.
While we're on the play's conclusion: Gallagher's lighting design during the second act is strong. It's late evening, more morning than night, and the stage is dimly illuminated. Add that to the bleary haze of the characters' raucous drinking game and this section of the play feels downright otherworldly.
Of course, didn't the days immediately following September 11th feel otherworldly? They did for me. And the conversations the characters have struck a tone for me. Sure, they're talking about big concepts like fate and God and free will and love, but that's where you go when something big happens. You hide behind and find comfort in ideas so large that they're ambiguous, as opaque and ethereal as a storm cloud.
You hide behind banality, too. That's why these characters are playing a drinking game only a day or so after the tragedy. They're not doing it because they're disrespectful of the lives lost; they're doing it because they're terrified.
This scene transported me back to those days. The actors were so invested in their game's hilarity that it felt like a completely spur-of-the-moment sequence. At the same time, it did not feel ad-libbed. Even though these characters are absolutely sloshed, the production felt tightly controlled, allowing me to enjoy the drunken silliness with the comforting knowledge that the play was still on track.
So I sat back and enjoyed.
Not enough can be said for how funny this play is, but I'll try. It's really, really, really funny. Darkly humorous at times, incisively satiric at others, and sometimes even a little slapstick. (I loved Cheatham's "pistol" pantomimes with the bottle opener.)
It's so funny that I forgot to take good notes, though I did manage to jot down one of my favorite quotes.
Waverly, early in the evening, tells Andrew to make himself comfortable and watch a little TV. She points at the set. "Great new show," she says sarcastically. "Attack on America. It's really long."
This production is a local gem, and you owe it to yourself to see it. Everyone will come away with their own opinions about the "coin toss" that opens the play, and (supposedly) determines the play's outcome. This device acts as another comment on fate and free will. As I said, I found the philosophical arguments unengaging, but the controlled weirdness of the second act, combined with the ambiguity of the play's final image, haunt me.
Recent Tragic Events plays at Heller Theatre on May 8-10 at 8pm. Call 746-5065 for more information, or visit hellertheatre.com.
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