Survivor's Guilt

National trauma party in Recent Tragic Events (Photo by Sara Shapley)

Everyone knows where they were on 9/11, but who remembers the day after? If 9/11 was a wake-up call for Americans, then 9/12, in playwright Craig Wright’s work, Recent Tragic Events, was the day we all began to sleepwalk into an uncertain future. Currently in its Southern California premiere at Theater Tribe, Wright’s 2002 play begins with a prelude: A Stage Manager (Kyle Colerider-Krugh) makes the usual cell-phone requests of the audience, then flips a coin to determine whether the production will run according to a “heads” version or its “tails” alternate, with the differences between the two indicated during the performance by amplified tones.

The story starts as a dating comedy and evolves into an absurdist collision of neuroses, before it becomes a debate on the nature of free will. Andrew (Nathan Brooks Burgess), an airport-bookstore manager, arrives at a Minneapolis apartment building to pick up his blind date, ad executive Waverly Wilson (Dawn Burgess) — a young woman who spends a suspicious amount of time stalling Andrew while she makes and receives phone calls. Her frequent trips to the bedroom cause the sensitive Andrew, who wears running shoes with his brown-cord jacket, to become even more nervous. Before long, Waverly’s musician neighbor, Ron (Drake Simpson), ambles onto the scene, critiques the wine Andrew has brought Waverly and generally makes him feel like the nerd Andrew suspects he is.

Soon the reason behind Waverly’s phone calls is clear: Her twin sister, Wendy, who lives in New York, has not been heard from since the attacks on the World Trade Center. Waverly downplays the chances of Wendy’s being in the Twin Towers — after all, she didn’t work there. Joined by Ron’s near-catatonic girlfriend, Nancy (Tara Orr), the group decides to order pizza, down tequila shots and watch the TV’s video loop of the attacks, all the while waiting to hear from Waverly’s mother. Then, Andrew remembers, a woman he recently met in a New York bar may have been Wendy — and she may have been hired for a job at the World Trade Center.

The play now takes a decidedly bizarre turn, when Waverly’s great-aunt, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates (Orr again), joins the party with a case of Mexican beer. Without giving too many of the play’s surprises away, I’ll note that Oates’ visit provides a surreal detour but doesn’t derail the evening. During a booze-guzzling card game, Oates and Ron argue over chance, fate and free will, with Ron delivering his bleak opinion that the 9/11 attacks were to be expected: “Kick everybody’s ass for a hundred and fifty years; plant a bunch of people on the other side of the world in the middle of a land where nobody likes them, because you feel bad you didn’t do anything about the Holocaust until it was too late . . .; build a pair of ultrafucking tall buildings in the most . . . prominent city in the world . . . and then act surprised when something bad happens.”

Wright’s straightforward autopsy of suburban marriage, Orange Flower Water, was a hit this spring at the Little Victory Theater; Recent Tragic Events veers away from that earlier play’s couples-therapy realism and more toward fantasy — one chilled by the shadow of historical catastrophe.

“It feels like a weird dream,” Waverly tells Andrew early on, describing both this strange play and the benumbed senses of America immediately after 9/11. Recent Tragic Events is torn between the gravity of Wendy’s situation (and that of the country’s) and the goofy connections the blind daters make. Waverly and Andrew both love Anthony Trollope novels, and, in fact, Andrew is so spooked when he realizes that his home library is identical to Waverly’s own bookshelves that he momentarily flees her apartment. On the other hand, “Wave” has never read any of the Oates books on her shelves and relies on Andrew, who adores Oates’ work, to summarize each one before her great-aunt arrives. Added to this mix is Ron, a narcissistically laid-back dude clearly going nowhere, who finds synchronicity in every coincidence.

Wright’s imaginative play becomes all the more nervy when one considers that it was written shortly after 9/11 and premiered in Washington, D.C., weeks before the disaster’s one-year anniversary. He knows his characters and their reassuring vocabulary, a lexicon that allows them to articulate the pain and confusion of that time in typically American terms. “Do what you gotta do,” Ron encourages at every turn, an anesthetizing sentiment echoed by Waverly’s two mantras, “It’s all good” and “Excellent!” When Waverly considers that her sister is dead, she refers to the airline crashes as “the thing” — an amorphous label that throws the skyjackings and their terrible aftermath into a harmless, fuzzy focus.

Wright also shows a comfortable familiarity with the tics of 30-somethings, especially their competitive wine expertise, studied nonchalance and social opaqueness. Because of this, the play rolls along crisply and confidently. Still, Wright’s use of the Stage Manager at the play’s opening and end never rises above gimmickry — the theater equivalent of a movie shot from a first-person point of view. His script also trails off toward its conclusion, as though experiencing the onset of deep sedation and counting backward from 100 until curtain. And, ultimately, for all the rhetorical sparks that fly between Oates and Ron, Wright’s own view of the free-will arguments is never clarified, and we feel that even trying to follow the conversation is a waste of time.

Recent Tragic Events, however, may well be the one “9/11 play” that survives the ravages of time, and its glitches do not cripple the work as a thoughtful entertainment or undermine this production’s charms. Director Stuart Rogers has assembled a definitive version here, beginning with a cast that is almost scarily in tune with the play’s characters. As Waverly and Andrew, Nathan Brooks Burgess and Dawn Burgess create a believable chemistry between two people who desperately want to like each other but are being pushed apart by events — and, to an extent, by Ron, hilariously brought to life by Simpson in a performance that is neither over-the-top nor merely irritating. In a rather outré impersonation of Oates, Orr recites the novelist’s ideas while Orr’s other character, Nancy, hides behind a curtain of her own hair. (Though Nancy has very few lines, some of her actions speak louder than words.)

The show also receives strong technical support from set designer Jeff McLaughlin, who creates Waverly’s spacious apartment on a relatively small stage with the help of a cathedral window upstage that reflects the characters below. Luke Moyer’s lights subtly modulate the onstage mood, while David Kronmiller’s sound design, with its murmuring TV-news soundtrack, keeps the horror of 9/11 just at bay but never completely out of mind — a case of art imitating life if there ever was one.?

RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS | By CRAIG WRIGHT | At THEATER TRIBE, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood | Through July 22 | (866) 811-4111

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