The events of last Sept. 11 are hardly grist for comedy, but Craig Wright has scripted a poignant, thought-provoking and, yes, essentially amusing piece on the subject that is making its premiere at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater Co. The play uses the attack as a pretext for a sobering examination of timeless philosophical issues, but dresses it up in an enormously accessible package.
The setting is the Minneapolis apartment of a young woman during a blind date, a social roll of the dice that is the play’s prime metaphor. It is Sept. 12, 2001, and news coverage of the attacks can be heard from the television down front. Like the rest of the country that day, the two characters are numbed by the awful news and are just comprehending its significance. “Yesterday I woke up and I thought what am I going to do with my life,” remarks Waverly (Holly Twyford). “Today, I woke up and I thought, What’s going to happen to me?”
The statement triggers a free-form examination of an ageless philosophical question: Do we control our actions or is every event preordained? The issue is probed and prodded in numerous ways that extend beyond Wright’s slender but compelling plot. For example, a disoriented “stage manager” introduces the play and has an audience member toss a coin. He tells the audience to listen for a specific tone that will occur periodically. The tone cannot be heard by the main characters, he explains, but because of the coin toss it may — or may not — alter subsequent events. Nobody knows for sure.
The timid but earnest suitor (Eric Sutton) discovers upon arrival that the contents of his host’s bookshelf are identical to his own. It is the first of many disquieting commonalities that ultimately leave the characters pondering who’s in charge. Sutton is appealingly understated as the congenial guest who eventually realizes that he knows an unsettling secret.
Twyford excels in the demanding central role. Waverly is a self-assured advertising executive, troubled because she can’t contact her twin sister, who lives in New York City. She continuously dials the portable phone while reminding herself that the free-spirited sister, her own alter ego, doesn’t work in the World Trade Center. Or does she? The perf is a superb display of coolness on the edge of hysteria.
Comic relief is provided primarily by the play’s two remaining characters. Michael Ray Escamilla convinces as the annoyingly chatty neighbor, a drugged-out musician. The role also carries much of the play’s intellectual punch, since disbursed within his nonsensical (and overwritten) musings are many of the playwright’s cosmic messages about fate, free will and personal responsibility. Dori Legg plays Waverly’s spacey and immodest friend, a silent study in blank stares.
Author Wright (“The Pavilion,” “Orange Flower Water”) cleverly weaves a tableau of plot, philosophy and suspense in a humorous mix that does not dishonor the events of 9/11. Indeed, the play offers a lesson in how the theater can deal with such a momentous event without being trite, maudlin, trivial or disrespectful. Much credit goes to director Michael John Garces, who is sensitive both to the characters and the comic flow, but also seizes the pivotal moments to jolt the audience back to reality.