Craig Wright's often-produced play "The Pavilion," now in a lovely revival at Malibu Playhouse, takes place in the early 2000s, in the fictional town of Pine City, Minn. (That's where Wright, who also has a long list of TV writing credits including "Six Feet Under," "Lost" and "Dirty Sexy Money," has set a number of plays.)
But the narrator of "The Pavilion," a mysterious, dapper young man all in black (Jason Lott), seems to think more context is required to set the scene: He takes us all the way back to the beginning of the universe, summing up the cosmic events that, over eons, finally gave rise to the play's protagonist, a thirty-something guy named Peter (Chris Payne Gilbert), who has just driven in to attend his 20th high-school reunion.
Lott delivers the introduction with an intense stare, a slightly unsettling smile and a tone reminiscent of spoken-word poetry. If the language seems unusually portentous for a high-school reunion drama — well, doesn't everybody secretly suspect that he or she is the center of the universe, its ultimate achievement, the sensibility for which the whole fantastic contraption has been specifically designed?
Wright and his director, Jeremy Skidmore, aren't afraid of the artifice of stagecraft — in fact, they seem to revel in it here — and "The Pavilion" humorously but sympathetically sends up the self-importance of the human consciousness.
The class reunion is held at the Pavilion, a beloved old lakeside building (a bare-bones set by Jacob Muehlhausen, gracefully lighted by Rebecca Bonebrake). Slated for destruction immediately after the event, this monument could hardly be a more obvious symbol of the folly of trying to hold on to the past. But Peter is undeterred: He has come home hoping for a do-over, another chance at a life with Kari (Leslie Murphy), the girlfriend he callously ditched after senior year and hasn't seen since.
For the Record
An earlier version of this review misstated the name of the actress playing Kari as Leslie Thompson.
Peter regards everything that stands in the way of this fantasy — Kari's marriage, for example, or her two decades of anger at him — as a minor obstacle the universe has thrown in his path. In fact, the universe, as embodied by our narrator, plays every other member of the class of '85 that Peter and Kari encounter.
Lott has a virtuosic gift for slipping, without the benefit of costume changes, into and out of characters of either gender. He conveys innumerable voices and idiosyncrasies, from the stoner mayor to the reunion's peppy, tightly wound organizer. He's not trying for nuance or depth in these portrayals, which verge on cartoons if not cliches, and some of them are more amusing than others. At a certain point, the gimmick begins to feel strained, so it is a relief when the narrator steps away, if only briefly, to let the lovers hash things out.
Left alone onstage with Wright's deft dialogue, full of memorable and offbeat zingers, Murphy and Gilbert relax into a genuine and moving rapport that makes their ultimate confrontation with the reality at the heart of this meta-theatrical world especially poignant.
"The Pavilion," Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 22. $10-$35. malibuplayhouse.org/the-pavilion/. Running time: 2 hours.