Perhaps my frustration lies with the tone of the play. Or maybe I just don’t find much of it amusing. In truth, there are funny moments. And thank goodness Albany Civic’s very capable cast is on point and delivers them with punch. Maybe it’s the subject matter - hateful and damaged family members destroying each other by offering, with poisoned love, some version of a twisted truth. It’s rather a downer. Whatever the reason (or reasons), I am not a big fan of Richard Dresser’s domestic dark comedy "Wonderful World."
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, Albany, NY
WHEN: Through November 20
HOW MUCH: $18
MORE INFO: 518-462-1297, www.albanycivic.org
Created illusions and their destruction are a well-worn theme in the world of drama and many playwrights have worked it to success. Humor, allegory, farce and tragedy are all useful tools in the telling, but the structure and presentation need to be well crafted. It is very easy to alienate the audience when forcing them to look too closely at things they don’t want to see. Edward Albee’s skillful use of language and humor make the revealed horrors in his works both survivable and thrilling. The buried rage and chilling casual coldness on parade in the plays of Neil LaBute propels the audience in such a visceral way that the slap still stings long after the curtain falls. And Tracy Letts perfects the theme in "August: Osage County", an epic soap opera told with emotional guns drawn and catfish flying. But Dresser’s tone and approach, an almost absurd and overly comic quick-witted stab with a cartoon-like flourish, puzzles more than satisfies.
Like most family battles, the skirmish starts small. It involves Max and Jennifer who are about to be married and his brother Barry and Patty who are already. Sounds cozy. But wait, someone has a problem. Patty gets her knickers in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to Max and Jennifer’s engagement announcement get-together.
Max and Jennifer insist Patty was invited. Okay, perhaps not specifically using her given name, but certainly by use of the plural noun “you” uttered when Max called Barry to extend the invitation. Patty, finding this “word crime” proof of a long-held animosity from Max and Jennifer, insists that she is a pariah and pushes Barry into an “it’s them or me” scenario. Battle lines are drawn, conspiracies – both real and imagined – formulate and the hateful volleys of best intentions fly.
The plot of this play is ridiculous. And that could be okay, but Dresser cannot settle on the manner in which to tell his story. One-dimensional and devoid of empathy, his characters speak largely in self-aware psycho-babble and pretentiousness. Okay, this approach might work, but the play doesn’t commit to that premise. Out of nowhere come moments where the characters reveal an honest human emotion or frailty, shifting the play into a different style. With this wobble between farce and drama, no firm footing is established, leaving unclear what world we are in. And it’s certainly not “wonderful.”
That being said, the cast and director, Gary Hoffman, have successfully pushed the humor of the piece making the evening less of a slog. Jacob Luria is splendidly clueless to his manipulative shrew of a wife, well played with icy venom by Jennifer Cullen. Adam M. Coons portrays earnest well, doing yeoman’s work with a character the author wrote as a cipher. And Abbi Roy as the innocent and jejune Jennifer and Debra Berger’s Lydia, with her well-placed sardonic bombs of wisdom and observations, both enliven an otherwise pointless evening.
It is important to point out that on opening night, some in the audience found more to enjoy than I did, laughing and then audibly gasping at the rather obvious twist the author dumps at the close of play. Sadly, this play transported me to a different, less wonderful world.