It takes time for major historic events to find expression in art (a serious body of literature about the Vietnam War didn't emerge until almost a decade after the peace treaty was signed), and it seems to me that playwrights are just beginning to feel their way into the topic of September 11, 2001. Their task is complicated by the nature of the tragedy itself: For New Yorkers, the impact was devastating in the life-changing, visceral way that an act of war is devastating. For the rest of us in this vast country, the effect was more diffuse, a mixture of shock and disbelief, grief for the victims, rage at the perpetrators, and concern about the political consequences.
Next Stage's Recent Tragic Events speaks to the experience of those in the heartland immediately following the attack. It makes no attempt to deal directly with the larger philosophical issues; instead, author Craig Wright takes us to a living room in Minneapolis, where a young woman, Waverly, is getting to know Andrew, a blind date introduced to her by a pretentious mutual acquaintance in New York. Andrew is attracted to Waverly, but not sure he's ready to get involved. The dialogue is light and funny -- except that the date is September 12, 2001, and Waverly is waiting to hear from her sister, Wendy, a twin who's in some ways her other self. Wendy has been living in New York and hasn't called since the attack. Still, Waverly has her anxiety under control. She knows the phone lines are clogged, and she has no reason to believe that Wendy was anywhere near the World Trade Center at the time of the explosion.
Andrew and Waverly are joined by a goofy neighbor, Ron, who's aimless, eccentric, faintly musical and clever in a sort of dopey way, along with Ron's silent friend Nancy. Waverly's great-aunt, Joyce Carol Oates, also makes an appearance. She is not, we're assured, the Joyce Carol Oates, although she does seem to have written all of Oates's novels, or at least a set of novels with exactly the same titles. Joyce Carol Oates is played by a sock puppet manipulated by Nancy.
Everyone drinks, plays cards and argues about determinism. Much of the play's action has been fueled by odd coincidences. The puppet Oates, a staunch believer in free will, accuses Andrew of being a puppet. Waverly's anxiety continues to grow.
Terrible events always get us thinking about destiny and fate: If I hadn't been delayed in traffic, I'd have been on the plane that crashed. If my friend had gone out for ice cream five minutes later, he wouldn't have been in that multi-car accident. I survived because I was lucky, because God had me in his hand, because it wasn't my time to die. There were hundreds of stories circulating right after 9/11 about people who would have been in the Twin Towers except for a missed subway connection, a mild flu, a change of plans, and people who were in the towers but had gone up or down the stairs at just the right moment to escape. Or at just the wrong one. We need to find reasons for tragedy, because the thought of a random universe, a universe in which human suffering has no meaning, is too terrifying to bear. Though he's using a small, fine lens to do it, this is the territory Wright is exploring.
At the beginning of the play, a person called the Stage Manager comes out to tell the audience that a ping will sound whenever a character faces a significant decision. At the beginning of the second act, the Stage Manager informs us that this was simply a cruel joke, as the characters have no decisions to make. They are free only to follow the sequence set down in the script.
Wendy was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. That's where she should have been on September 11, safely away from the carnage. But as the action progresses, we learn that Wendy was thinking of taking a new job at the World Trade Center. Did she do it?
This is such a good play; it's funny and hip -- as when Andrew tries to summarize Oates's entire oeuvre for Waverly in a few minutes. But it's also genuinely sad, and you have to admire the delicacy and incisiveness with which Wright tackles his difficult topic.
Next Stage has mounted a solid production. The highlight is Gene Kato's Ron, who's so relaxed in his own skin that you wonder if this is a fine characterization or simply the actor being himself. Through her silent first act, Jenny Hecht, as Nancy, employs a hilariously limited repertoire of expression -- from bored to vaguely dismayed and back again. She also manages to maintain it during the second act, whenever she's not delivering Joyce Carol Oates's dicta in a crisp, clear voice. Bernie Cardell is perfect as the nebbishy Andrew, though there are moments when his acting appears superficial. As Waverly, Janelle Kato sometimes feels a bit surfacey, too, though she does bring charm and energy to the role.
Despite the Stage Manager, despite the sock puppet, there's something very realistic about Recent Tragic Events. This is how we face tragedy, it tells us, this mix of the mundane and the existential. Waverly is filled with dread, but at the same time, her anxiety seems a little overblown, even to herself. The waiting and unsureness, the doubt that there's any real reason for dread even while dread grows, can seem crueler than confirmation of our worst fears. But while we endure it, we joke, we play games, we watch television images of buildings crumpling thousands of miles away.
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