Questions — more than 400, according to the program — are what Rajiv Joseph’s Mr. Wolf is all about. The play, receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, begins with a teenage girl asking a question while circling a large rug with an enormous map of the universe behind her. It ends with the girl asking her father an unusual one. Along the way are heady issues of God and existence, probed against an equally unusual dual backdrop: child abduction and the junction between astronomy and metaphysics.
The most important question, however, as in any play, is whether the viewer will think the questions are worth pondering, and how the play treats them.
Some will be turned off by the darker contours, such as the discovery of the teenage girl, Theresa (Emily James), abducted 12 years ago by a mysterious man named Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie). The first three-quarters of the taut play is mostly a family drama, as Theresa’s obsessive father, Michael (Jon Tenney) and mother Hana (Tessa Auberjonois), and Michael’s new wife Julie (Kwan Martinez), who is also searching for her own missing daughter, attempt to make sense of what has happened to Theresa, who can’t remember seeing another human after her abduction at the age of 3. But things then get hairy, as the truth of Mr. Wolf slowly begins to emerge, and Theresa’s apparent Stockholm Syndrome takes on a far creepier dimension.
Wolf’s play delves into Big Ideas with grim reality, not always agilely. As blame, hope, fear and uncertainty swirl with increasing velocity, it sometimes seems as if the center will not hold. The fact it ultimately does is a credit to his obvious writing talent (his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist and went to Broadway) and even-keel direction by SCR co-founder David Emmes.
Space — emotional and spatial, intimate and universe-spanning — plays a huge part in Joseph’s play (kudos to Nephelie’s Anonyadis’ set design, which features characters dwarfed by enormous set pieces). As Theresa asks late in the play, when she sees a horse for the first time, how is it possible that some things are so big and she is so small? Whether audiences think Joseph’s play is big or small might depend on how much they feel like engaging with the play after they’ve left the theater.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; through May 3. (714) 708-5500, scr.org.
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