The winsome tone of Craig Wright’s play “The Pavilion” is its greatest strength. It also makes it more than a bit grating. Transparent in character, theme and plot, the work announces exactly what it’s about at the beginning — “This is a play about time,” says the Narrator in an extended opening monologue — and it then goes on to tell an exceedingly slight tale about former high school sweethearts re-encountering each other at their 20th reunion. So very bittersweet and precious, this is a work for those who like their theater sodium-free, only bland cynicism allowed.
Wright hazards the realm of sheer pretentiousness with the Narrator’s introduction, which puts the very small Minnesota-set events into the context of the grand scheme of things before introducing us to the former lovers Peter (Mark Moses) and Kari (Julie Evan Smith). Two decades earlier, Peter abandoned Kari under especially unadmirable circumstances, but he’s now returned to attempt to make amends and maybe, just maybe, reconnect. After all, Peter’s unhappily single, Kari unhappily married.
The reunion takes place at this small town’s Pavilion, which is to be torn down at midnight immediately following the event. The Narrator (Stephen D’Ambrose) keeps track of time as the evening progresses, and also plays the various other attendees, male and female — with names like Pudge, Smoke and Cookie and archetypal professions like minister and sheriff. They’re all comic exaggerations of the Middle American middle-aged. Meanwhile, Peter and Kari, the normal folks, the ones we’re supposed to identify with and care about, circle each other for a while before engaging at length while they gaze at the stars, depicted on the walls in David Ledsinger’s set design and Kent Dorsey’s particularly excellent, emotional lighting.
The play definitely lifts toward the end of Act II, when its themes and theatrical device come together. It becomes clear what Wright has been doing all along as his characters contemplate how life doesn’t live up to the expectations one had in high school and how it’s not possible to turn back the clock. Moses and Smith are fine as the two slices of Wonder bread in this peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a play. The characters are plain, purposefully generic and unquestionably accessible. People will relate, but that’s not to say that the characters are compelling.
In director Craig Noel’s production, the theatricality of the piece, most comparable to “The Fantasticks,” is achieved with such mellowness that we really can feel the evening grow later and later very quickly. It doesn’t help that D’Ambrose isn’t a very interesting choice for this role. His multiple characters are marked out but not inhabited — minor voice inflection changes, stiffer bearing, or a limper wrist demarcate the townsfolk without effective clarity or comic appeal. He’s got a great narrator-voice and a pleasing, comfortable presence, but the role whose function is to transform the mundane into the poetic ends up with too many sedative qualities of its own. It ultimately feels like we’re being read a story rather than experiencing one.