Five rarely performed Thornton Wilder one-acts make up Keen Company’s “Such Things Only Happen in Books,” guaranteeing at least an audience of the curious. But what really makes “Such Things” tick, when it does, are the transcendent moments helmers Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein find in the texts. A realistic writer gets his comeuppance without knowing it, an angel heals two people at once — there’s plenty here. The ensemble turns in smart performances, and Sandra Goldmark’s gorgeous design aids the stagings, particularly the final one, in ways Wilder couldn’t have imagined.
Keen Company’s response to the stifling irony of the times has been to turn around and run in the opposite direction in pursuit of things that reportedly no longer exist — like innocence and truth. If that seems a great recipe for totally credulous or naive theater, withhold judgment until viewing the title piece in this quintet.
In that one-act, Paul Niebanck plays lordly novelist John, whose two pleasures in life are losing at solitaire and lecturing his wife (Sue Cremin) about how there are no plots in life. Of course, his wife is cheating on him with the family doctor (Clayton Apgar), who stops by to reveal to us not only their infidelity but a whole network of jailbreaks, murders, mutilations and buried treasure, all of which has taken place in poor old John’s house. Aside from being a nice bit of self-parody on Wilder’s part, it’s an excellent criticism of “realist” writing. Nothing happens in life? To you, maybe.
The danger for Keen is not naivete — again, Forsman and Silverstein tweak these pieces to keep them interesting — but a generalized nostalgia that doesn’t really have anything to say. This is what happens to “Cement Hands” and “Now the Servant’s Name Was Malchus.”
The first is taken up with a lengthy discussion of whether millionaire Roger (Apgar) is going to give his fiancee Diana (Pepper Binkley) an allowance when they get married or just buy her everything, and is frankly a little tone-deaf given the melting state of the country’s economy. The latter, which kicks off the evening, is a mildly insufferable discussion between God (Kathleen Butler — Forsman’s best choice in this piece has been to cast God as a woman) and the servant (Apgar) whose ear Peter cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane. God is all-good and all-knowing, so there’s not much drama — imagine “It’s a Wonderful Life” had ended after the first five minutes.
The final two plays are the strangest, probably accidentally in the case of “In Shakespeare and the Bible.” Silverstein, whose direction is not as assured as Keen Co. a.d. Forsman’s, can’t quite communicate what exactly is going on here — it’s some kind of complicated negotiation between a guy who used to work at a brothel and the madam he used to work for, involving the guy’s fiancee, and it’s anyone’s guess why she dumps him.
The latter is extremely touching and unexpected — an impressionistic retelling of another Bible story, about a pool of water occasionally visited by a healing angel. The conversations between the sick and injured are surprising and textured, and when Goldmark’s set splits open to reveal the pool, it’s a terrific, theatrical moment (Josh Bradford’s lighting is lovely here, too). The playlet’s final lines give “Such Things” the perfect moment to end on, returning to a focus that’s moral without moralizing.