Recent Tragic Events

by John Stoltenberg

The American theater has generated some great plays prompted by the tragic events of 9/11. I remember vividly Neil LaBute’s powerful 2002 drama The Mercy Seat, in a production LaBute directed  Off-Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver. Locally, Kathryn Coughlin’s gripping Bigger That You, Bigger Than Me, which Field Trip Theatre premiered in 2015, knocked me out (and has inspired a forthcoming production in New York).

When Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events debuted Off-Broadway in 2002, it was touted by its producer Playwrights Horizons as the first post-9/11 comedy—which was a stretch even then. True, the play is set on the day after 9/11, in an apartment in Minneapolis where a television set is left on replaying grim footage of the twin towers falling down. But the tragic event itself is oddly tangential to the play.

The apartment belongs to twenty-something Waverly, whose twin sister Wendy lives in Manhattan and may or may not have been killed in the carnage. So there’s a through line of disaster-specific suspense that we see enacted mostly in Waverly’s anxious and persistent use of her phone. But as playwriting, the 9/11 angle feels more incidental gimmick than trenchant story driver. Even Waverly’s attention is diverted from it more often than not, suggesting we don’t much need to care about it either.

The play’s comedic elements are layered uneasily over this artifice. Waverly’s wishy-washy blind date Andrew arrives. Her obnoxious neighbor Ron drops by joined by his near-naked girlfriend Nancy. Together the four end up in a Gen-X goof-off fest that involves pizza, wine, and card games. Wright’s humor, such as it is, has not worn well. And the conceit that these characters would blithely entertain themselves this way on such a dark day—oblivious to “the thing” that’s on TV—strains credulity.

The real guts of the play, which are substantial, become apparent in the characters’ riffs on free will versus determinism. And Wright injects some clever metatheatricality to dramatize this theme. During the Stage Manager’s pre-show speech she asks an audience member to volunteer to flip a coin. After that, the Stage Manager tells us, we will periodically hear a tone sound at points in the play that could have gone another way if the coin toss had turned out different.

This thought exercise sets up a second act in which the characters tackle, à la a post-collegiate bull session, the topic of freedom versus fate. These passages make for interesting listening. The characters for the first time are enjoyably articulate instead of annoying. And though they don’t reflect explicitly on how the topic connects to the disaster at ground zero, presumably we can.

Putting disparate components into the same play, however, does not necessarily make them cohere. And in the case of this script, the tragic news, the rom-com, and the philosophizing never become a satisfying whole. But an energetic, enthusiastic cast and a smart, imaginative design team have given Recent Tragic Events their all and mounted a worthy production in the vaulted church that is St. Mark’s Players’ home stage. Tackling a flawed play and making it work as well as it can, their undauntedness is to be admired.

Jenny Oberholzer is a droll and engaging Stage Manager. Alicia Yass is an effervescent Waverly. Sidney Davis is an appealingly kindhearted Andrew. Ernie Molina is amusingly boorish as Ron. And Taylor Bono, who keeps quiet as Nancy, becomes a delightfully matter-of-fact sock puppeteer. The credibility of their engaging ensemble work is a credit to Director Anupama Torgal.

Set Designer Kelly Mingle has created an expansive yet homey apartment furnished from Ikea on Waverly’s budget. Costume Designers Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword get the young exec look just right for Waverly and Andrew and the hipster-slacker look just right for Ron and Nancy. Sound Technicians Brian Jones and Jerry Dale have excellently mic’ed the cast to counter church acoustics, and Sound Designer Heather Cipu created nicely storytelling audio including the tones of chance, the broadcast voice of Tom Brokaw, and musical interludes (Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” at the end was especially apt). And kudos to Lighting Designer Jerry Dale, who managed to create warm intimacy on stage from instruments hung way high up in the rafters. The surprising light cues called by the Stage Manager in the last five minutes, which included a stunning projection, were especially well done. It was the perfect payoff.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, including one intermission.

Recent Tragic Events plays through January 28, 2017, at St. Mark’s Players performing at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – 301 A Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 546-9670, and leave a message, or purchase them online.