In the world of TV news, where tragic events are reduced to a series of vexing images, looped and repeated ad nauseam, a certain metaphysical dilemma arises: If a catastrophe doesn't have its televised moment, did it really happen?
Craig Wright, who spent the past few years writing for the HBO series "Six Feet Under," knows a thing or two about the intertwining of television and misfortune. Look no further than his 2002 play, "Recent Tragic Events" currently in an excellent staging by Uma Productions which grafts the aftermath of 9/11 onto a sitcom-ready format.
"Friends," quite thankfully, never bothered with a post-9/11 episode. No scenarios in which terrorists attack the World Trade Center and then the next day Rachel goes on a blind date! Wright, on the other hand, has no qualms about plunging down that rabbit hole.
If that sounds off-putting, it's not. Especially in the hands of director Mikhael Tara Garver, a young up-and-comer whose skills have steadily sharpened since she helped launch Uma in 2001. This time, she has picked a script that's well-matched to her talents and sensibilities.
Puttering around her Minneapolis apartment, Waverly (Elaine Robinson) primps for a blind date. All seems normal, except the day is Sept. 12, 2001. And she has yet to hear from her twin sister, who lives in New York and was possibly in one of the twin towers the morning before. The TV is on but the sound is muted; the images have a numbing, hypnotic affect on all who enter the apartment.
(The pop tunes emanating from Waverly's stereo suddenly take on new meaning Tom Petty's "Free Falling" and Dave Matthews' "Crash" in an amusing combination of bad taste and black humor from sound designer Scotty Iseri.)
Soon the mystery man arrives, bearing cheap wine and a novel by Joyce Carol Oates. He is Andrew (Eric Evenskaas, the one casting misstep), an awkward beanpole of a fellow. Things progress haltingly between the pair, and while they don't really seem compatible she's a crisp slice of apple; he's an overcooked noodle they read the same books and drink the same wine, so it's a match made in TV heaven. Minus chemistry.
The wacky neighbor barges in next (of course!), a guy called Ron and played by actor Paul Noble as a tangy, more abrasive version of The Dude in "The Big Lebowski." When he sticks out his paw for introductions, he solemnly intones, "The taking of hands. " It's funny and stupid and you can't take your eyes off him.
The trio bonds over pizza and shots of tequila, and their conversations, peppered with sidelong references to the terrorist attacks, are elliptical, erudite and wacked fans of "Six Feet Under" will recognize the juxtaposition of the daffy with the bathetic. Fresh insights, however, are in short supply.
Ron eventually drags his glowering lady friend over for the party, and then things get really weird when Oates, the famed author herself, shows up in the form of a sock puppet. (Audrey Francis simultaneously plays both girlfriend and Oates in a funny bit of schtick.) All the while, Waverly attempts to keep her head on straight as she waits for news of her sister.
The Chopin Theatre's basement space has always been a challenge for troupes, forced to work around the blocky support columns that cut the room at awkward points. Brian Sidney Bembridge, one of Chicago's busiest set designers, has utterly transformed the space so that the audience is inside the living room itself. It's a great move. The dimensions and floor plan feel realistic. Late arrivals must crawl through the window curtains to get to their seats.
More companies should be this creative with the space.
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