Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006
A fine cast, fast-paced direction by Rob Ruggerio and clever sets by Luke Hegel-Canatraella render David Lindsay-Abraire’s less than perfect comedy Wonder of the World appear far more wonderful than it actually is. Lindsay-Abaire’s writing is slick, but, in this work at least, he often writes to be funny rather than to advance plot or build character.
In fact the central character of Cass (Keira Naughton), a young woman who runs away from her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and her marriage to Ken-doll Kip (Brian Hutchinson) when she discovers he has been keeping a bizarre sexual secret from her, is the main problem with this play. Cass is wonderfully kooky and free spirited (you will not be surprised to hear that Sarah Jessica Parker played her in the off-Broadway production) but so naïve and childlike that it is inconceivable that should could be a high school math teacher, as she claims, a wife, or even a grown woman. As Keira Naughton plays her, clad in oversized overalls and sporting bubble-gum pink sneakers, it is hard to believe she has completed junior high school.
Nothing in Lindsay-Abaire’s world is true to life or even true to itself, but Cass is so over the top as to set the whole house of cards tumbling.
I should give you a very brief plot synopsis, although I am loathe to give away to many of the truly entertaining plot twists and surprises. Cass boards a bus to Niagara Falls, where she meets Lois (Finnerty Steeves), an alcoholic with a wooden pickle barrel and a plan to use it. In true Lucy-and-Ethel fashion Lois agrees to become Cass’s side-kick, at least until she kills herself, and they take a hotel room together. On the Maid of the Mist Cass meets the boat’s captain, Captain Mike (Dan Cantor), a kind-hearted young widower with whom she has a fling. She and Lois also meet Karla (Libby George) and Glen (William Bogert) who turn out to be inept private detectives hired by Kip to track Cass down.
All the rest of the roles – a bald woman named Barbara, a marriage counselor who moonlights as a clown, a laconic helicopter pilot, and three hapless waitresses at three different tacky themed restaurants – are played by Susan Lousie O’Connor, who literally steals the show on several occasions.
Kip does find Cass and beg for a reconciliation. And the show does end with Cass and Lois in that pickle barrel headed for the Falls. Along the way many surprising connections amongst the minor characters are revealed, and we learn Kip’s terrible secret at the end of Act I, but by the end Cass is pretty much the same person she was at the start, and we know precious little about what makes her so completely clueless.
Taken individually each whacky character is fun and funny. While Cass is squeaky clean and one dimensional, Steeves’ Lois is a poignant and hilarious creation. With her face squnched up and her glasses askew, Steeves is a perfect sad sack. You understand (and so does she) exactly why husband left her. Her marriage may not have been perfect, but it was a real one, unlike Cass’s which seems to have been drafted from a fairy tale.
As a character said in a play I reviewed earlier this week, “Being alone is terrible, but being with someone is impossible.” The second act is centered on a scene in which Cass and Kip, the long-married Karla and Glen, and the complete strangers Lois and Captain Mike play The Newlywed Game. I knew that Lindsay-Abaire had rewritten one scene for this production of Wonder of the World and I suspected it was this one long before a glance at the script Barrington Stage kindly supplied confirmed it. I have no idea how the scene originally played, but Cass’s behavior when she and Kip lose to Karla and Glen is puzzling and does nothing to endear or explain her personality.
George and Bogert are very, very funny as Karla and Glen. It is refreshing to see roles written for mature actors that aren’t sickeningly saccharine or cute. Bogert is a well-established character actor, one of those faces you know you’ve seen a million times before but can’t remember where. I understand his most recent claim to fame is on wildly popular Chapelle’s Show. His Glen, the Private Eye with Attention Deficit Disorder, is eminently well-intentioned as his mind and body wander through the action. As Karla, George is a tiny terrier of a woman and a perfect foil for the tall and gentle Bogert. The facts they reveal about their marriage during The Newlywed Game are hilarious, but no more so than what any other couple of many decades could come up with. Perhaps we need a Silver-to-Gold game show where couples married 25-20 years can make fools of themselves, er, compete.
Cantor has the usually thankless task of playing a person who’s just too good to be true, but he manages to make Captain Mike believable and sympathetic. Hutchinson never does quite manage to make the obsessive Kip likeable, although my sympathies certainly lay with him when the Newlywed Game was done.
Thanks to Hegel-Canatraella’s spiffy little (and one big) set pieces and Scott Pinkney’s snapping lighting design this show looks just great. A pretty illuminated image from a vintage postcard of the Falls opens and folds in surprising ways, and little set pieces zip in from the sides to create mini-playing spaces, like bus seats and the wheelhouse on the Maid of the Mist. Anne Kenney’s costumes are spot on, and the ones for O’Connor are hilariously funny as well and surprisingly versatile. O’Connor must have one of the fastest dressers in the business back behind the scenes. A great comic touch is achieved by dressing all the stagehands in yellow rain slickers and Wellies.
While Wonder of the World is not a perfect play, this is as nearly perfect a production as it is going to get. You, who don’t have to come home and write a serious and thoughtful review on its merits and shortcomings, are guaranteed to have a wonderful time. And the Duffin Theatre at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, which is much wider than it is deep allowing the maximum number of seats close to the stage, is an excellent venue.
For all its gloss and the relentless perkiness of its leading lady, there are some dark and unpleasant revelations in Wonder of the World that make in unsuitable for children, and I believe Barrington Stage is actively discouraging children under 17 from attending this show.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Wonder of the World runs through August at the Duffin Theatre in the Lenox Memorial Middle & High School. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is for adults only. Performance times are Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm; matinees Friday at 2pm and Sunday at 5pm. The Duffin Theater is fully-accessible with on-site parking. Tickets are $38-$52. There are 3 discount performances – Thursday, July 20 at 8pm and Friday, July 21 at 4pm and 8pm, to which tickets are $15. Call the box office 413-236-8888 or from South County call 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006