It would be unfair, or at least unreasonable, to expect plays touching on the events of 9/11 to meet exceptionally high standards. But even by everyday ones, Craig Wright’s “Recent Tragic Events” is a dud. This meandering, pretentious play about a blind date in Minneapolis touched by repercussions from the terrorist attacks is an unfortunate season-opener for Playwrights Horizons. It also occasions the sadly unimpressive Gotham stage debut of Heather Graham, the appealing and extraordinarily pretty young actress probably best known for appearances in “Boogie Nights” (she was on roller skates) and the first “Austin Powers” sequel.
Waverly (Graham) is not quite ready to be greeting guests when Andrew (the likably befuddled Hamish Linklater) comes knocking. She flits between bedroom and bathroom, primping in a state of vague distraction and exchanging getting-to-know-you banalities with her caller. (They have both read all of Trollope, Wright would have us believe.) Andrew, for unknown reasons, appears to be equally distracted. Their eyes stray occasionally to the (unseen) TV set, which emits day-after-the-horror dispatches in a low rumble: It is Sept. 12, 2001.
Enter Ron (Jesse J. Perez), one of those obnoxious-neighbor characters playwrights and sitcom creators erroneously imagine to be endearingly wacky. He knocks back a bottle of wine and exchanges off-kilter variations on getting-to-know-you banalities with the nonplussed Andrew. After what feels like several phone books of aimless dialogue, we come to learn that Waverly’s twin sister, Wendy, studying fashion in New York, hasn’t been heard from.
A few phone books later, Andrew nervously allows how he happened to meet Wendy in New York just a few weeks before — hence his flummoxed state. He haltingly reveals that she might just have been in the towers; in their brief encounter, she talked to him about taking a job at a new fashion magazine with offices there (never mind the unlikelihood of such an enterprise setting up shop at the World Trade Center.)
But even in the face of this disquieting news, Waverly maintains a peculiarly chipper demeanor — she bleats the irritating catch phrase “It’s all good!” with increased frequency. Indeed, the writing for this character, and Graham’s perf, are so lacking in modulation and emotional coloring that Waverly comes across as either exceptionally heartless or utterly obtuse. It is impossible to believe that a young woman who had not heard from a twin living in New York some 36 hours after the terrorist attacks would be behaving with such apparent equanimity.
In fact, Wright’s depiction of Waverly’s behavior — presumably we are meant to sense oceans of anxiety beneath her “denial,” but we don’t — is not just obtuse, but also distasteful: There were, after all, many people who waited in desperation for news from relatives in the hours and days after the tragedy; I suspect very few of them played silly drinking games, as Waverly blithely does when her great-aunt, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, arrives.
Yes, this purported comedy’s zany factor is multiplied in act two, as Oates enters (never mind that she is hardly of an age to have a thirtysomething great-niece) in the form of a sock puppet, manipulated and given voice by the actress playing another, entirely extraneous character who, for no defensible reason, wears nothing but a T-shirt — and I do mean nothing.
This pointless puppet gimmick is not the play’s only one, however. There are more pompous ones, too: stage directions portentously intoned over the sound system in the play’s last minutes, a ringing bell signifying moments that “could potentially have occurred differently,” as a faux stage manager puts it. This is meant to clue us in to the revelatory idea that, gosh, life is full of funny games of chance, quirks of coincidence and infinite possibilities — as if just one of the innumerable missed-train stories relating to the terrorist attacks didn’t bring that obvious point home more powerfully.
Such puerile philosophizing is not relegated to the sidelines, however, but takes center stage in the second act in embarrassingly trite discussions of free will and fate. Director Michael John Garces, displaying little finesse when it comes to the evening’s pacing and tone, clunkily cues the more somber of these by dimming the lights.
It’s hard to account for the play’s arrival as the season-opening attraction on the main stage of one of the city’s prominent not-for-profit theaters. Was it chosen merely because of its theme, as an “occasion piece” marking the second anniversary of 9/11? If so, that was a painful miscalculation: Bad art does no one any honor.