I first learned that playwright David Lindsey-Abaire was sneaky when I met him in the summer of 2000 at the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn. He was working on Kimberly Akimbo then, an unlikely--but quite engaging--comedy that finally got its New York premiere this spring at the Manhattan Theater Club. That summer, a glorified--and glorious--staged reading of the work was fodder for the National Critics Institute, where I was a fellow.
And it was sneaky.
I think Lindsey-Abaire likes to deliberately stack the deck against himself from the very start in these plays: Begin with as self-sabotaged a premise as possible, and add complications that should further alienate our affections. Then make it funny.
The title character in Kimberly is a perfect example: a young girl with progeria--the rare, accelerated aging disease. A central character in Fuddy Meers, which regional audiences loved at Manbites Dog Theater in 2002, suffers from aphasia after a stroke. The title is what happens every time she tries to say the phrase "funny mirrors."
To say the least, the two are not the likeliest of candidates for comedy--or successful comedy, at any rate. But the combined impact--and success--of both plays have lead some to wonder if Lindsey-Abaire has patented that weird mix of Oliver Sacks and Neil Simon we've seen in his work.
Wonder of the World predates these plays, apparently before the playwright had learned to carefully ration medical plot devices. By its end, two, three, or more conditions, figure into the proceedings. Attention deficit disorder, alcoholism and a mild case of bipolar personality are joined by a sexual dysfunction that makes for one of most exquisite gross-out moments regional theater-goers have seen in years. On opening night, the Thompson Studio Theater audience raised their voices as one in a rousing chorus of "Eeeewwww!" at one crucial point in the play.
Tracey Phillips, who we enjoyed in University Theater's Stop Kiss last year, plays Cass, a manic grade-school math teacher with a long list of things she hasn't done while being in a seven-year marriage to her overprotective noodge of a husband, Kip.
Armed with only her list, a suitcase--and a decent trout aspic--Cass takes it on the lam from school, home and husband, befriending a gritty and decidedly non-recovering alcoholic named Lois on a bus to Niagara Falls.
Cass is going there to pick up her life just before Kip proposed. Lois is going there to end it all--in a pickle barrel in which she plans to go over the falls.
When Kip tries to save a few bucks on a detective to track his wife, senior citizens Karla & Glen, two incompetent private investigators, get involved. Meanwhile, Cass is busy crossing items off her list; wearing velvet, watching cartoons and having a torrid fling with Mike, the captain of the boat that circles the base of Niagara Falls.
Will Kip patch things up with Cass? Will Lois keep her date with disaster? Will the two private eyes ever get a real job? And what does a sign from heaven look like, after all? These are a few of the questions the characters--and audience--ponder by the end of Wonder.
Lindsey-Abaire's knotted cat's-cradle of a script has characters repeatedly tripping, amusingly enough, over each other's continuity; by play's end it's become a very small world indeed.
And that sneak gets away with it all, once again. The characters' situations are laughable, and their dilemmas are absurd. But before you know it, you find yourself caring about them. While Lindsey-Abaire makes fun of his characters' missteps and strange choices, he never mocks their humanity. That's his secret. It's a good one.
Thankfully, funny director Rod Rich is in on it, playing fast and loose in the early innings. The situation is desperate, but never serious, as Phillips' Cass hyperfocuses on The Plan to set herself free, while Scott Franco's Kip embraces comic bathos.
As tides turn, Kevin Ferguson's nice-guy Captain Mike tries to bring some balance to proceedings, while Mary-Kate Cunningham never overplays the curmudgeonly Lois. Bunny Safron's hard-bitten Karla slow burns to the antics of the vaporous Glen, played by Jerry Zieman.
But Morrisa Nagel gets the biggest workout in a memorable series of supporting roles throughout the show. Before it's over she's been a phobic, crusty airline pilot, three waitresses in three disastrous theme restaurants (based on Native America, Renaissance Fairs, and 19th century Transylvania), and Shrinky the Clown, a no-nonsense psychotherapist with a side gig in children's entertainment.
Lindsey-Abaire knows better than to give her all the answers--or, nearly, any of them. But her group session at gunpoint (which includes the broken home version of the old TV show, The Newlywed Game) gives Cass and others clues about how things ultimately work out.
At several points throughout the work, characters look for indications, obscure signs from the heavens--or anywhere else for that matter--about what they should do with their lives. By play's end, it's interesting how the playwright makes the point that the biggest and most useful signs need little interpretation.
There they are. Right there, right now. All one has to do is look. Will wonders never cease?