When marital relationships become too much to bear, there’s only one thing to do, says playwright David Lindsay-Abaire in his satirical new play, “Wonder of the World.” Hit the road. Well actually, you could opt for suicide by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Take your pick. After all, hard times call for drastic measures.
The predicament more or less sets the parameters, high and low, for this tragicomic — mostly comic — tale of marital discord run amok. Full-frontal lunacy is on display, but in the process some darker themes are touched on and venerable institutions lambasted. Despite an occasional bump and clunk, such as choppy pacing, it’s all effectively mounted by Woolly Mammoth, which specializes in the unconventional.
The play involves the misadventures of two women who take opposite approaches to life’s hard knocks. Wackiness is everywhere, accentuated by a fine cast of mostly Woolly regulars and fully captured by Tom Prewitt’s unrestrained direction.
Deb Gottesman is terrific as an oppressed middle-class woman who can’t go far enough to escape her nerdy and deviant husband (Michael Russotto), but who ends up in a tawdry Niagara Falls. A defiant optimist with a tenuous grip on reality, she is nonetheless the play’s emotional and spiritual center. Gottesman’s character is a chronic list maker who gives herself such daredevil assignments as seducing a military officer and talking to a stranger on a bus. She also asks cosmic questions, one of which reverberates throughout the play: Is life planned for us, or are we just the victims of random chance? The subject may be well worn, but the approach is most assuredly fresh and hilarious.
She quickly meets up with another castaway, a suicidal alco-holic lugging a huge wooden pickle barrel to the falls, played with much poignancy by Nancy Robinette. The ensuing relationship features an obvious co-dependency that perks beneath a mild mutual contempt. Their experience is interrupted by another troubled couple played to the manic hilt by Kerri Rambow and Bruce Nelson.
Lindsay-Abaire has taken pains to draw the women far more richly than the men, who for the most part are one-dimensional fools and foils. For example, Russotto’s drippy husband draws laughs but little sympathy in his unrelenting quest to preserve the household. Ditto Nelson, who plays a clueless private detective. Both guys wring the most out of their roles.
The play is extremely funny, and Lindsay-Abaire’s flair for the absurd combines nicely with an ability to pull laughs out of any situation. Case in point is a brief scene in a helicopter that is absolutely hysterical, as is a spoof of theme restaurants.
Kudos also go to Emily Townley, who excels in a variety of zany parts, and Kirk Jackson, who plays a compassionate boat captain and paramour.
The play is a perfect season-ender for the 20-year-old Woolly Mammoth, which touts itself as D.C.’s “most daring theater com-pany,” and demonstrates a fierce dedication to the offbeat. Indeed, Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz claims the quintessential Woolly production is Nick Darke’s wacky “The Dead Monkey,” which like “Wonder” skewers American culture and norms. It was brought back this season, 11 years after its initial production.
“Wonder” is one of the last productions to be mounted by Woolly in its humble Church Street theater. Next December, the operation moves into the Kennedy Center, where it will occupy the American Film Institute’s 182-seat theater in a three-production arrangement. The deal could be extended, depending on how things go. In 2003, Woolly is slated to move into a new theater in a building to be constructed on Seventh Street N.W. in the popping Gallery Place neighborhood. The impending move is prompting local wags to question whether such “respectability” will force the iconoclastic outfit to become more mainstream. Shalwitz scoffs at the suggestion, fortunately.