Not that anybody’s clamoring for my approval, but let me begin by congratulating Very Little Theatre for daring to step afoul of the staid, risk-averse traditions that dominate so much arts programming in this town, and staging something relatively new and fresh — a play full of outcast eccentricity and sexual perversion and fumbling questions about the validity of modern existence.
I’m pretty sure that when Tennessee Williams first appeared — full of outcast eccentricity and sexual perversion and existential angst — he ruffled a lot feathers, but those theater companies brave enough to confront audiences with his art did a favor for the ages.
Now, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire — whose Wonder of the World is now at VLT — ain’t Tennessee Williams, but his writing certainly pushes the envelope in many of the same ways. And that’s refreshing, and challenging, and a bit frustrating.
Directed by Michael Walker, Lindsay-Abaire’s darkly absurd play tells the story of Cass (Clare McDonald), a young woman whose husband, Kip (Cody Mendonca), is possessed by a gag-inducing sexual fetish involving decapitated Barbie dolls. Disgusted and understandably alarmed, Cass decides to leave her man as well as her comfortable Brooklyn existence. She hops on a bus to Niagara Falls, where she befriends Lois (Marla Norton), a suicidal alcoholic, and has a fling with an impeccably polite and slightly melancholy captain of a tour boat (Alex Miller, as the widower Captain Mike).
Add to this bizarro mix an elderly pair of half-assed detectives sent by Kip to track down his wife (Sharon Sless and T. Sean Prescott), and you’ve got a recipe for a nihilistic comic romp in the manner (if not the mode) of Arrested Development, full of amplified ironies and cartoonish transgressions. The writing is unhinged and loose-limbed, so much so that the play feels, at times, like an extended bit of improv, for better and worse.
The cast is good, especially Jennifer Appleby. She takes on several important roles, including that of a marriage therapist in clown make-up who is brought in to sort out the escalating chaos of Kip and Cass’ marital impasse. Appleby has a dry, wry approach to the play’s millennial humor, and she brings a knowing comic wink to each strange character she inhabits. She’s just right.
Overall, Wonder of the World is equal parts entertaining and annoying, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I imagine your response to it will depend on your stomach for watching the neurotic, narcissistic oscillations of Cass, whose myopic striving for liberation often looks like the confused, all-consuming tantrum of a spoiled brat (then again, that Barbie thing is a bit of a deal-breaker). McDonald, an appealing actor, plays the part with talent and zest; it’s just that I found Cass, with her compulsory joie de vivre and forced likability, rather unlikable.
Nonetheless, the play is sharply observed and often quite funny, and it certainly scores points for Walker’s tight direction and innovative set design (much of it automated). Its comedy is distinctly Park Slope-hip — a snarky, detached slapstick whose mannered flailings reside somewhere between the coy films of Hal Hartley and the lighter side of David Mamet. Call it an offering for Generation Xanax.
For me, the most interesting thing about Wonder of the World is how, in the end, with the whole thing threatening to go over the falls in a proverbial barrel, the play barely succeeds in pushing back against the meaninglessness that forever threatens to drown its characters. The minor victory Cass achieves is so tenuous and random, it’s almost pointless — a coincidence from which she derives only a punchline of comfort.
Wonder of the World plays through March 31 at Very Little Theatre; info and tickets at thevlt.com or 541-344-7751.