Spoiler alert: The title character of Rajiv Joseph's new play, "Mr. Wolf," kills himself after the first scene. This would preclude him from serving as the play's protagonist, but it doesn't prevent the actor in the role, John de Lancie, from receiving his share of stage time.
De Lancie plays a number of other (minor) characters who are mistaken for Mr. Wolf by Theresa (Emily James) after his death. She's the 15-year-old whom Mr. Wolf kidnapped as a child and turned into his secret science project. Theresa may be the play's protagonist, though it's a little hard to tell here.
Joseph, the talented author of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," has several plots jockeying for position in a play that never finds its footing. In David Emmes' halting production at South Coast Repertory, what begins as a meditation on time and the cosmos turns into a banal detective story and sketchy psychological study of the way families cope with unresolved tragedy.
The boldness of Joseph's imagination is on vibrant display in the opening scene. Theresa, walking barefoot on the perimeter of an Oriental rug, is contemplating vast metaphysical conundrums in a room dominated by a wall of books and a chalkboard drawing of the solar system with equations scrolled in the margins.
Under the guidance of Mr. Wolf, an astrophysicist and madman, she is teasing out the concept of infinity. Theresa, whom Mr. Wolf considers a prophet, proposes that in a universe without end there must be alternative versions of the same reality, a place where the impossible is possible and the dead are living.
Her own reality is about to undergo a tremendous deviation. The authorities are in hot pursuit of Mr. Wolf, who tries to ready Theresa for her entry into the world before taking his own life.
The setup is flamboyantly original, but the follow-through is unfortunately mundane. The change in context — from a heightened, lunatic realm of pure thought to a workaday world of mixed-up emotions — leads to some leaden playwriting.
The back story of Theresa's parents is laboriously set up. Michael (Jon Tenney) apparently couldn't forgive his wife, Hana (Tessa Auberjonois), for accepting that their girl was gone forever.
In the play's second scene, which takes place a few years earlier, Michael meets Julie (Kwana Martinez), whose daughter was also abducted. Michael decides they should work together, devoting their lives to the search for their children and supporting each other through their grief. Like a religious zealot, he offers her a program to save her soul.
By the time Theresa comes home, Michael and Julie have been married for three years. But now that Theresa has returned, Hana, who owns the house her husband is occupying with his new wife, wants to put her failed marriage back together.
The years of anger and resentment between Hana and Michael, however, are not easily erased. And the puzzle of what happened to Theresa, and whether it has any bearing on the situation of Julie's daughter, still has to be worked out.
Joseph has written a play with several provocative story lines, but he hasn't tied them together very well. Faith and randomness, trauma and recovery are worthy themes. Unfortunately, the characters aren't richly developed beyond the circumstances of the plot, the dialogue is often flat and the direction of the drama can seem arbitrary, as though Joseph was still deciding which story to focus on.
Like several new plays this season at SCR, including Kimber Lee's undercooked "Tokyo Fish Story" and last fall's egregiously unconvincing "Zealot" by Theresa Rebeck, "Mr. Wolf" is a few drafts from finding its ideal form.
Emmes' production compounds the hesitancy in the writing. Tenney and Martinez are unable to make the awkwardly rendered meeting between Michael and Julie believable. They're playing words on a page — and often contrived words at that.
The domestic scenes, deprived of the philosophical wit and idiomatic color that enlivened "Bengal Tiger," play out at a languishing pace. When the clashes grow heated, the acting acquires a soap opera ring.
Auberjonois lends Hana's abrasiveness an authentic edge, but this trait still seems like a playwriting shortcut to personality. At this point, it doesn't appear that Hana and her author have graduated from being passing acquaintances.
James' Theresa is captivating in her combination of precocious intelligence and radical innocence. But the character is too stunted by her situation to serve as the play's protagonist. Her consciousness isn't large or sturdy enough to build the play around.
Perhaps Joseph erred in doing away with Mr. Wolf so early. Not that his character, who makes a flashback return, is fully developed — indeed, we hardly know him at all. But there's something audaciously original about him as a theatrical figure. His relationship with Theresa is the most fascinating mystery in a play that is puzzling for all the wrong reasons.