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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

By Evan Henerson

"My life is specific to me"— Theresa
Mr. Wolf
John de Lancie, Emily James (Photo: Debora Robinson)
"The world is coming," the man known as Mr. Wolf says to the beyond-her-years brilliant 15-year-old girl pacing the perimeter of a carpet in a book-lined living room. He says this calmly, but there is no mistaking the urgency of his message, even if we in the audience do not yet know what he means. After he has given her provisions — including a chocolate bar, a warm coat, running shoes and advice on how they should all be used — he departs. The stage direction at the conclusion of this scene reads "The universe cracks open." No, this is not hyperbole. Certain playwrights have the ability to put their fingers on a keyboard and fracture the cosmos. Rajiv Joseph is one such individual and in his latest play Mr. Wolf he does so in rather unique ways.

For the record, I was not floored by Joseph's acclaimed play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo although I certainly recognized its ambition and artistry. But Mr. Wolf, in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, fills its canvas with dangerous ideas, with characters who stare into a void and see total blackness as well as those who can see flashes of hope.

David Emmes's production is equal parts disquiet and beauty. Peppered with individuals who are lost, found, and lost again, the production offers a pair of especially moving turns by Emily James and Jon Tenney.

Though the girl draws elaborate galaxies in chalk and talks of infinite universes, she does, in fact, live on Planet Earth in the present day. Thanks to Mr. Wolf's teaching/devotion, the girl (played by James) has no real concept of her place in the universe. Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie), whose kindly demeanor belies his predatory name, wants the girl thinking about distant galaxies and their philosophical implications. He leaves her, but will reappear in a new guise: as a physician, a gas station attendant, a federal agent. Given the girl's insistence that the universe allows for infinite possibilities and replicated time periods, Mr. Wolf's reappearance somewhat confirms her theory. br>
In another part of the city, perhaps not so far away, Michael (Tenney) encounters Julie (Kwana Martinez), and they bond over separate shared losses. Both are searching, but Michael's quest has become his life's purpose and Michael's resolve to fix both his own situation and Julie's somehow helps her continue living.

Two scenes later, time has passed and we are introduced to the play's final character, Michael's ex-wife Hanna (Tessa Auberjoinois). She returns to meet Michael (now married to Julie) and, due to rather remarkable circumstances, to stay in the house that she formerly lived in with Michael. We will see the girl again and learn that her name is Theresa. The work of charting unviewable galaxies is nothing compared to the challenge that faces her now, but Theresa is oddly resilient. She asks question after question after question. Mr. Wolf has prepared her well.

My vagueness here is deliberate, as Joseph has created a work that is more comfortably discussed post-viewing among people who have seen the play communally than assessed for people who have not. Mr Wolf is a mystery. The arrival of "the world" signals Mr. Wolf's end, but he will return, both as aforementioned additional characters and as himself, to deliver a final manifesto. "A master astronomer is searching beyond the interstellar dust for the deeper questions of the Universe, which all lead back to God," he says. The man has committed a monstrous act, but insists "someone should THANK ME!" He may be partially right, but nobody will.

In a sense, Joseph has written a play for those who choose to survive, for those who have to figure out what steps to take when the universe cracks open. Circumstances have caused a portion of Michael and Julie to die and in Tenney's numbness over a traumatic change, his fixation with rules of conduct that he created, the rage that he cannot summon, we see the man slowly starting to put himself back together.

Auberjonois delicately shades the role of Hanna, taking her beyond the officious authority figure with all the power. The actress is not trolling for sympathy. She makes it clear that Hanna made choices and is now in a position to make new ones.

Joseph is on slightly surer footing when Mr. Wolf is tackling cerebral questions or in flashback. When plot circumstances rear their heads and Theresa is enlisted to help unlock secrets, it feels like the playwright is checking off "to do list" boxes.

The play's final reveal is first anticlimactic, then surprisingly tender with characters reaching out to each other in new ways. Anchoring the action throughout is James, playing a 15-year-old girl who has to learn that she is not destined to be the prophet she was raised to be. Watching her stare people in the face, machine-gunning them with questions or delighting in the feel of her bare feet on a much-loved rug, we see an old soul in a teen-ager's body. This is remarkable work.

Ultimately, Theresa will not be left alone. Nobody will, and that's a good thing. In Mr Wolf, which is by no means an easy play, Joseph makes a convincing case that isolation is pretty awful whether the universe is cracked, healed, or somewhere in-between.

Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by David Emmes

Cast: Emily James, John de Lancie, Kwana Martinez, Jon Tenney, Tessa Auberjonois
Set Design: Nephelie Andonyadis
Costume Design: Leah Piehl
Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design: Cricket S. Myers
Production Manager: Joshua Marchesi
Dramaturg: John Glore
Stage Manager: Sue Karutz
Plays through May 3, 2015 on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa (714) 708-5555,
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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