In Collapse, playwright Allison Moore creates humor from the I-35W Bridge tragedy
Comedy doesn't usually get the respect accorded tragedy, but if you analyze the way that playwright Allison Moore has put together Collapse — the varying rhythms of the dialogue (everything from a touching monologue to a hyper-rapid patch of stichomythia); the surprises that seem inevitable once they've occurred; the easiness with which she moves from laugh-out-loud funny to heartfelt while doing both justice; and, above all, the way the play rollicks along for ninety swift minutes, keeping you completely engaged and laughing the whole time — you can't help realizing that this stuff is just as hard to write as all those heavy, violent and portentous critical darlings. Perhaps harder. Moore built her plot around the tragic collapse of the 1-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minnesota in 2007, which killed thirteen people and injured 145; it's a mark of her skill that she can create humor from this tragedy and its aftermath without in any way diminishing the event's seriousness and consequence.
There are familiar elements to the script, including a troubled marriage, a wacky visiting sister whose presence upends a fragile household, a leering horndog (this one made impotent by prostate cancer) and a mysterious package that needs to be delivered to a man called Bulldog, but they're handled with complete originality. David is the male half of the couple in question. He was driving on the bridge when it collapsed, and hasn't recovered from the experience. Unable to go to work, he hangs around the house in pajamas and sweatshirt, opening bottles of beer and dumping the contents into a sad brown plant at the side of his chair so that his wife, Hannah, will think he's an alcoholic. Hannah is at her wits' end trying to deal with him, a recent miscarriage and another kind of collapse — that of the economy, as the law firm where she works plans to downsize and her client base is disappearing. Enter sister Susan, broke and homeless, manipulative, given to spouting new-age truisms about finding freedom, and the owner of a cat named Camille Paglia. Since David won't go to a support group, Hannah — at the urging of both David and Susan — decides to go herself. Only she's mistaken the nature of the group in question. And that's how she meets sex addict Ted.
While Collapse may not have great depth, it does have tremendous deftness and humor, an occasional moment of tenderness, and a few intelligent insights about the vagaries of life and the way everything can collapse in an instant — from an apparently solid bridge to all of one's most closely held assumptions.
The vitality of the production — and under Dee Covington's direction, it is very alive — rests on two wonderfully eccentric performances. Clad in vivid rusts and oranges (courtesy of designer Ann Piano) that perfectly accentuate her red hair and lively persona, Jessica Austgen as Susan squirms on the sofa, practices her stretches on a mat, wheedles and threatens, as narcissistic as she is disarming. Michael Morgan has to be the authoritative Ted: The man is creepy and pathetic, but he's also seductive in an oddly backhanded way (there's a pun here, but I'm not sure what it is). Rebecca Remaly is a bright Hannah, frantically striving to hold her orderly world together, and Laurence Curry is a gentle, slightly one-note David.
Like the Denver Center Theatre Company, Curious Theatre Company has a strong commitment to new work — though artistic director Chip Walton's selections for Curious tend to be a little hipper and sexier. Collapse is being shown as one of the National New Play Network's rolling world premieres, through which three theaters around the country receive funding to produce the same original play over the course of one year, thus assuring the playwright of experience, visibility and some income. Collapse received good reviews in Berkeley earlier this year and goes on to Dallas's Kitchen Dog Theater after this; let's hope this is just the beginning of its on-stage life.
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