BWW Review: You'll Laugh, You'll Shiver: WRECKED at Contemporary American Theater Festival
It's an old trick, but a good one: Set two contrasting dramatic tones (usually domestic comedy and dread) against each other and let them fight it out throughout a play. It's the trick playwright Greg Kalleres employs to advantage in Wrecked, premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown. The title may refer to the family car of 30s-ish couple Victoria (Julia Coffey) and John (Chris Thorn) after an accident of some sort that has occurred just before the play begins, or to the entire structure of their lives together. Ours to find out.
The dread just below the surface of the ordinary and the domestic life was one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite themes. It was also, in rather a different way, the theme of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play of which this one kept me thinking a lot. (In the program notes, Kalleres is described as an admirer of Albee's.) As in Virginia Woolf, we meet Victoria and John late at night, returning home from a social gathering (well, in this case one that didn't come off for reasons we shall soon learn), and we see enough of them to realize they have secret shared understandings and techniques for coping with distress. In this case, whatever happened just before we see them quite evidently caused enough distress to start them coping in their special way. They also rely on their lovingly curated home to serve as their ultimate sanctuary.
But then, as in Virginia Woolf, they are joined by another couple: their dysfunctional friend Lynn (Megan Bartle), rattling on about her "asshole" boyfriend with whom she just broke up, and an apparent policeman (Tom Coiner), who may be trying to uncover truths Victoria and John would rather leave buried. And unfortunately at about this point it becomes impossible to discuss what happens in the play in any detail without dropping intolerable spoilers.
It will have to suffice to say that the resemblances to both Hitchcock and Albee intensify as the play goes on. As to the Hitchcock resemblance, it resides in the difference between a comic, not to say antic, surface (involving among other things the defilement of a giraffe statue guaranteed to bring down the house), and the threat that at any moment what lies beneath that surface may rise and turn the comedy into tragedy.
As to Albee, without describing them, let me say that the final two twists of the play are perhaps too thorough an hommage to the conclusion of Virginia Woolf. In each play, a couple agree to what they understand is a made-up version of reality, but bind themselves to it anyway. Cumulatively, however, the twists in Wrecked defy plausibility, and Wrecked, unlike Albee's play, is not serious enough at heart to make plausibility unimportant. The twists will send the audience-members out with a slightly bad taste in their mouths.
Do these shortcomings make Wrecked a, um, wreck? Not at all. If one may be pardoned an oxymoron, this is a seriously funny play, the ending notwithstanding. Kalleres has a perceptive eye for the silly minutiae of suburban existence and a keen ear for the amusing things couples say as they negotiate, fight, and struggle through adversity. Nor does it hurt that Coffey, Thorn, Bartle and Coiner make a great ensemble, batting back and forth in spirited fashion total inanities (for example speculations on canine suicidality or the setting of The Jungle Book or how to pronounce "ye olde") that barely conceal existential anxiety. Coffey, in particular, makes an art of being rattled to the point of near-hysteria.
So, yes, go. You'll laugh. You'll occasionally shiver. Good times.
Wrecked, by Greg Kalleres, directed by Shelley Butler, presented through July 28 as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Marinoff Theater, 62 W. Campus Drive, on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $57-$67, at www.catf.org or 304/876-3473 | 800/999-2283. Adult language, crude behavior.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman.