Somewhere in Noah Haidle’s “What is the Cause of Thunder?” there might be a more purposeful, poignant and even more comedic work waiting to get out. But as seen in this early incarnation at Williamstown Theater Festival, the two-hander has the feel of a schizophrenic draft in which half the play is working at a level the other half has not yet reached. Neither the slick staging nor the superb performances by its two hardworking actors can solve the nagging problems of this imaginative but problematic new work.
Haidle has had major Off Broadway exposure with previous plays, including “Saturn Returns” for Lincoln Center Theater and “Mr. Marmalade” at Roundabout. He again gets the benefit of a polished production here; Alexander Dodge’s inventive and flexible set designs and original music and sound by Fitz Patton are particularly stellar.
The play starts promisingly with a hilarious scene in which a nun interrupts a woman praying to report that things at the convent are not going well. She reels off a litany of disasters that include escaping animals and a priest touching 37 of the “wee ones,” then ends with news that the woman’s daughter has slipped back into a coma and that, oh, she forgot to mention, God has also died. God’s last words before dying were: “What did I do?”
Soon enough we realize we’re watching a soap opera that Ada (the versatile Wendie Malick) has starred in for 27 years. But all too soon, we see Ada in her far less interesting “real” world back in her New York pad, with her very pregnant daughter, Ophelia (wonderfully played by Betty Gilpin). The rhythm of the play is then set with scenes that alternate between the soap and real life, with occasional overlaps and flights of fantasy in which Ada loses track of which is which.
It’s one more case of reality bites, for it’s in the real scenes where some of the less original themes are all too blatantly presented: the banality of real-life versus the drama of the not-real life; the unlived life due to habitual retreat into the world of fantasy. “Life is boring,” Ada complains. “I hate reality,” she says at another point. No one has ever taught her how to live. Part of the point, of course, is that Ada has no life outside her soap, but this poses serious self-inflicted challenges for a playwright.
Nothing much does happen to Ophelia and Ada in their real lives, and it doesn’t help that the tone of the more farcical soap isn’t much different from that of the women’s less interesting day-to-day. Whether helmer Justin Waldman could have helped more here is hard to say, but the play is not quite funny or farcical enough to carry off this more important portion. It becomes a problem when, like Ada, we prefer the world of the soap opera to the domestic realm of mother and daughter.
In the soap scenes we get verbal gymnastics, interesting staging, echoes of Shakespeare, evil twin sisters and buried-alive brothers rising from the dead — all playfully, skillfully and diversely portrayed by Gilpin, inhabiting seven characters in all. However, back at home, where we spend at least half the 90-minute evening, it starts to feel like a tired episode of “Roseanne.” And given that this is a nice apartment presumably on Manhattan’s Upper East or West Side, something feels off about Ophelia. With her boots and unkempt hair and old dresses, she seems more out of Beth Henley’s world than that of “Gossip Girl.”
As a much shorter one-act, “Thunder” might rumble, but as a full-length play, one keeps reaching for the remote to seek out that soap. Despite the humor and inventiveness of the fictional world, reality here pales in comparison, just as it does in Ada’s mind. And while it’s one thing for Ophelia to say, “You wait and you wait and you wait and nothing much happens,” it’s another to make an audience share that impatience.