Anyone who has ever fallen in love with an actor will find something to cherish in Craig Lucas' new play. Touching, tender, endearingly ambitious comedy boasts the most delicately fine-tuned ensemble on a New York stage at the moment. They have been directed with abundant sensitivity by Mark Wing-Davey.

Anyone who has ever fallen in love with an actor — or, for that matter, with the theater itself — will find something to cherish in Craig Lucas’ new play. Make that a whole lot to cherish. To begin with, this touching, tender, endearingly ambitious comedy boasts the most delicately fine-tuned ensemble on a New York stage at the moment — talented actors mostly playing sweet but untalented ones, a tricky proposition. They have been directed with abundant sensitivity by Mark Wing-Davey, who provides the light but keenly focused touch that Lucas’ rich, complicated play all but demands. Indeed, everything about this production at Playwrights Horizons seems marked by a kind of grace — maybe all the collaborators were inspired by a natural sympathy with the subject at hand.

Lucas’ gently satiric but compassionate play pays tribute to the petty trials and transient joys of life in the theater, and the unexpected intersections between life and art.

The play is, on the surface, a funky, languidly paced backstage docudrama about a small theater troupe getting off the ground in Cambridge. They’re aiming preposterously high: Nathaniel (Rob Campbell), the genially pretentious director, has provided his own adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” no less. In the opening scenes we watch him audition a handful of nervous young actors, while his wife, Paola (Mary Shultz), ostensibly also his co-director, keeps herself carefully in the background.

Jen (Ana Reeder), a baby-faced blonde who’s returning to acting after a failed marriage, flees her audition in tears. Her ditzy roommate Fanny (Rosemarie DeWitt), chugging from a Thermos (“It’s only wine”), babbles nervously at her neighbor, swarthily handsome Hakija (Lee Pace), who distracts her with a gruesome story about his past that he later dismisses as a joke, leaving her unnerved.

The eager, lanky young Chris (Daniel Eric Gold), instantly nicknamed Christmas, is clearly new to the process: He immediately begins peppering the director with earnest questions about, er, fate. It’s a Greek tragedy, after all.

Rehearsals soon begin, with the exotic Hakija, cast in the title role, soon becoming the cynosure of attention, sexual and otherwise. His casual suggestions on improving the text are quickly taken up by Nate, who predicts stardom. (Paola, whose intelligent ideas are ignored, is outraged.)

Jen, cast as Jocasta, flirts casually with her Oedipus, keeping it on the down-low since Fanny is still bruised by Hakija’s cruel joke. And Christmas, thrilled to have his first real acting gig, is later moved to hysteria by the grim tale Hakija unfolds about his past: A Bosnian Muslim, he was the only survivor of a massacre that wiped out his entire village.

The play is loosely constructed around scenes that shift instantly and almost imperceptibly between rehearsals, where the actors fumble their way through Nate’s hilarious, pothole-ridden version of Sophocles, and bars where cast and crew socialize. Douglas Stein’s sets paradoxically provide both distance and intimacy, enhancing the writing’s documentary-style naturalism, and the production is handsomely lit in just the right, slightly clinical shades by Jennifer Tipton.

Lucas, a former actor himself, beautifully conveys the sudden, sweet intimacy that springs up between artists engaged in a grandiose adventure on a 99¢ budget. The play has the shaggy, artless artfulness of a great Robert Altman movie: Small moments catch fire, sympathetic glances take on unexpected meaning, tender alliances are formed. The intoxicating excitement of youthful enterprise spreads a happy glow over these variously troubled kids, even as little conflicts, and deeper sorrows, begin to emerge.

Characters are developed in limpid, offhand strokes, through dialogue, often overlapping, that is so impeccably natural it seems unscripted. And we’re rarely aware that it’s being delivered by actors.

One of the major achievements of Wing-Davey and his cast is the spell of utter spontaneity the play weaves: Even when Lucas’ writing is most satiric, poking genial fun at the ineptitude or pretensions of its characters (“I want this production to feel like a bullet going right into the wound”), the performers never betray their comfortably established humanity. In an Altman movie, after all, the flickering moments of revelation must be created only once, not re-created eight times a week with the same sense of honesty and freshness that marks the performances here.

But Lucas is not merely setting out to write a modest comedy about the fears and foibles of struggling actors, lovable though the play is on just those terms. The play being rehearsed is not chosen at random. Lucas also aims to explore how the ideas expressed in Greek tragedy can resonate in everyday lives a couple of millennia later. In this undistinguished rehearsal hall in a Boston suburb, small-fry actors squabble and flirt, clumsily but earnestly trying to tease out the meanings of the text at hand, even as they remain, touchingly, blind to its real implications in their lives.

Sound unspeakably pretentious? It isn’t. Lucas playfully makes light of this idea even as he chases it down surprising byways. The characters muse earnestly on the possible contemporary relevance of “Oedipus”: “But if Oedipus is America?” Jen burbles excitedly. “And the chorus is the ongoing debate among the populace about what’s the best course of action like we used to have before TV made everything one big opinion, and Jocasta is the conservative because she doesn’t want Oedipus to ask any more questions…”

Nate claims to disdain cheap attempts to season the play with contemporary “relevance,” but, being naturally pompous, chimes in anyway: “If anything, Teiresias is the Wall Street Journal telling everybody what is completely obvious if they would get their heads out of their buttholes: America is fated to be an Empire.”

The director even goes so far as to instruct his actors to search for — or imagine — themselves into tragedy: “Look into your own lives … and change the narrative, but by only as much as you need to in order to place yourself at the center of a tragedy.” But Lucas has already woven into the play’s texture revelations suggesting how fate has played fast and loose with some of their lives. At a boozy bar evening, Nate casually mentioned that he and Paola got derailed from the fast track in Hollywood when she was diagnosed with HIV. Jen makes light of her own unhappy past: a marriage that fell apart even as she became pregnant, an abortion.

But it’s the brooding, elusive Hakija who will come to seem a living symbol of fate’s agency in human lives. His cruel history is often strangely echoed in lines from Sophocles’ play (“All killed, save one”). And, like Oedipus himself, Hakija is not who he seems to be. Enigmatic pronouncements to his friends — “You can’t explain human beings” — will come to have unsettling significance in the play’s last scene, which takes place several years after the rest, long after the actors have embarked upon their various, sometimes surprising destinies.

Terrific as all his fellow performers are, it’s impossible not to single out Pace for his superb work — the actor, acclaimed for his recent perf in Showtime’s “Soldier’s Girl,” is an outstanding talent.

“Small Tragedy” has some small flaws. The narration, provided by Jen, is sometimes overexplicit, as is her final, moralizing peroration within the text itself. And was it really necessary to include such lengthy excerpts from the opening-night performance of the troupe’s “Oedipus”? Probably not, even if it provides for an ingenious scenic coup when the curtain comes down.

Judging from grumblings heard along the Rialto — and scattered walkouts at intermission — there may be many theatergoers who mistake the play’s subtlety for aimlessness, its loose-jointed structure for formlessness, its elliptical style for meaninglessness. Others may sniff at Lucas’ daring desire to strafe his backstage comedy with ruminations on fate, free will and the darker aspects of recent human experience.

But who could fail to be moved by the play’s quiet insistence that an art form as remote as Greek tragedy can still serve as a guidepost on the rough road of life, that theater still has the power to help us wrest meaning from suffering?

Small Tragedy

Playwrights Horizons; 199 seats; $55 top


A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Craig Lucas. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey.


Sets, Douglas Stein; costumes, Marina Draghici; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Thom Widmann. Artistic director, Tim Sanford. Opened March 11, 2004. Reviewed March 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.


Jen - Ana Reeder Paola - Mary Shultz Nathaniel - Rob Campbell Christmas - Daniel Eric Gold Hakija - Lee Pace Fanny - Rosemarie DeWitt
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