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Recent Tragic Events

by Dolores Whiskeyman

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company opens its new season with a play firmly rooted in the theatre's tradition of hip, off-center comedy. In Recent Tragic Events, which draws on the September 11 terrorist attacks for inspiration, playwright Craig Wright concerns himself with the existential questions that plague so many of us these days: What choices have we, ultimately, when chance is so powerful a player in our lives?

The story upon which he hangs his question is fairly pedestrian -- a blind date gone awry -- except that he sets it on Sept. 12, 2001, and gives one of the romantic hopefuls a twin sister who may or may not have been in the World Trade Center the morning before.

Rather than shape this material into a tear-jerker, however, Wright sketches it as screwball romance and peoples it with the kind of oddballs that have come to be stock figures in Woolly plays -- the spaced out, chatty neighbor and his Sphinx-like girlfriend, the uptight suitor and the free-spirited young thing he is attempting, rather clumsily, to woo.

But Wright also tells his story with verve and wit, showcasing a quirky sensibility and a talent for crackling dialogue that rescue him from his own excesses. A crackerjack cast serves him well---Woolly veterans Holly Twyford, Dori Legg and Eric Sutton and newcomer Michael Ray Escamilla are perfectly cast, evenly matched, and a delight to watch. And director Michael John Garces skillfully navigates Wright's madcap turns to elicit poignancy amid the oddness -- of which there's plenty, sometimes in rather self-consciously large doses.

The story involves a bookstore manager named Andrew (Sutton) who arrives on the doorstep of Waverly (Twyford) for a blind date set up by a mutually despised acquaintance. Waverly is distracted by news that her twin sister Wendy, a student in New York, has not been heard from in several days. As the evening unfolds, Waverly and Andrew become aware that they seem connected by a series of bizarre coincidences, not the least of which is that Andrew believes he may have met Wendy on a recent trip to New York. As Waverly awaits word from home, the "date" devolves into a beer-soaked gabfest with the neighbor (Escamilla), his girlfriend (Legg), and a surprise guest -- Joyce Carol Oates, who is Waverly's great aunt.

Oates, as most avid fiction readers know, is one of the most prolific writers of our time, cranking out novels, short stories, essays, and plays with manic speed. Wright makes much of this fact in an extended joke in which Waverly, who has all of Oates's books on her shelf, but never read one, begs Andrew for a crash course as her great-aunt comes a-tapping at the door.

But when Oates appears, she is played not by an actress, but by a sock puppet, voiced in stentorian tones by Legg. (One hilarious bit involves Oates the puppet turning to Legg and purring, "Nancy! We never had a chance to talk!") Whether the puppet is a slam at Oates or good-natured ribbing, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's neither. Perhaps Wright is merely reinforcing, rather thickly, the notion that we are all of us puppets in the hands of an indifferent universe.

Recent Tragic Events
by Craig Wright
Directed by Michael John Garces
With Holly Twyford, Eric Sutton, Michael Ray Escamilla, Dori Legg, and Nehal Joshi
Sets by Daniel Ettinger
Lights by Lisa L. Ogonowski
Sound by Martin Desjardins
Costumes by Lynn Steinmetz
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman September 3 based on an Aug. 31 performance.
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co., at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theatre. Through September 29. Call 1-800-494-8497 or 2002-393-3939 for tickets.

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