Wonder of the World (Outcast, 2015)

Wonder of the World  - cast picturesSometimes the drama behind a production is more compelling than what we bought the ticket for. Woody Allen filmed September (1987) twice, and thinking about that is better than watching the movie. The 2013 Broadway revival of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans featured tabloid bitchfighting between Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, culminating in Baldwin’s “him or me” ultimatum (they kept Baldwin, but LaBeouf came to one of the previews and sat in front); critics were underwhelmed and the show closed after 37 performances. Outcast’s production of David Lindsey-Abaire’s Wonder of the World, which opened last night at Stone Church in Clinton, shuffled its creative team and actors along the way, and the fact that a show emerged is testament to those who remained and those who jumped in at the last minute. It’s not very good, but the “what if?” considerations make it considerably more intriguing.

Part of Outcast’s mission is to “fill a niche by presenting works not often seen on the local stage.” Wonder of the World premiered in 2000 at Manhattan Theatre Club; I don’t remember seeing it in the Greater Utica area, so mission accomplished. It’s a challenging piece – a twee postmodern farce with a few embedded razor blades. Tone is everything, and I think a successful production would need set, lighting, sound, costumes and performances all in sync with a singular vision. Each of the above had their moments (except lighting, which was dreadful) but under Eileen Tiller-Clanton’s direction they didn’t add up to enough.

The space at Stone Church is ill-suited to a play with as many settings as this one. I think a minimalist approach might have worked, in the absence of a top-notch scene shop; a lot of invention would have been called for to manage transitions, but with good lighting they might have pulled it off. As it was, the bulk of the set was two very long, very blue walls, lit by cheap LED PAR fixtures that didn’t fade well. The effect was of a poorly adjusted too-bright television set – interestingly tacky at first and then just wearying. Scene changes went on forever and too many sight gags were spoiled in the process; we had plenty of time to watch the actors move furniture in the dim between-light. I liked the cardboard captain’s wheel in one scene – the obvious low-rent approach hinted at a wittier set design that might have been. As far as sound goes, the right noises happened at the right times, but they came from behind the audience via a tiny speaker. More than many plays, WotW needs a complete design with consideration for WHERE the noises are coming from.

On paper, I love the cast. I knew WotW’s characters and the plot synopsis, and I’d seen enough of these performers to think, “This could be really funny.” Zenna Monaghan, Thom Capozzella, and Paul Hernon blew me away in Outcast’s Molly Sweeney; Larry Beasley has an advanced degree in facial expressions; and Leslie Reilly often excels at playing clever, bitter characters. What I saw last night was a bunch of talented soloists playing at the same time in different keys. They each had their moments, and considered in isolation were often quite good, but it didn’t come together for me.

Ann Carey was most successful, playing six different characters – by design, all except her final part were extraneous to the interaction; she was free to let loose in whatever key she wanted (to the obvious delight of those sitting around me.) Emily Foote also gave a nicely consistent performance that maintained a balance of comedy and function (for want of a better phrase) – she came very close to what I thought might be the tonal centerline of the piece as-written.

Monaghan gamely delivered her lines in the lead role (often quite well), but it has to be considered mis-casting. The play centers on a youngish woman, re-thinking where her life is going after a relatively brief marriage to someone who may or may not have been a mistake. I say “relatively brief” because the relationship is contrasted with a much longer relationship later on; plus, the climactic scene is a therapy-induced enactment of The Newlywed Game. With Monaghan and Capozzella as the central couple, the consideration inadvertently changes to reflection on where the protagonist has BEEN; because that element is accounted for in other relationships, thematic contrast is missing and some of the writing no longer resonates. It becomes a different piece. (Some plays accommodate such revisions; I don’t know if this one does.)

The audience I sat with enjoyed the piece, but it was hard to get a reaction from anybody afterward. I don’t think it was stunned silence, or an “I’m processing” non-response. We didn’t know what to make of the play because it was left up in the air by the creative team. Sometimes, that approach works – Miller’s Death of a Salesman can survive wishy-washy direction because there’s so much already there, and our interpretation builds on what we’ve seen before and bring with us. Wonder of the World is an ambitious attempt with a talented group of people; it just needed a steadier hand on the tiller.