On September 12, 2001, after a stunning halt to nearly all normal activity, life resumed for most Americans. And yet, we knew that everything had changed. Our sense of security was shattered. More broadly, we wondered what forces had led to this calamity.
Craig Wright attempts to address the existential questions of free will and predetermination in Recent Tragic Events, a play set in Minneapolis on the day after the Twin Towers fell. The results are often penetrating, occasionally funny, and sometimes a bit unsatisfying. Prologue Theatre’s production of this 2002 play is expertly done, but the fault lines in the drama itself are visible.
We begin with a coin toss. A stage manager invites a front-row spectator to call heads or tails. The results, we’re told, will determine what happens in the play. Every time a chime goes off, the actors will pursue one course or another.
Waverly, a young advertising executive, welcomes her blind date, Andrew, to her apartment. They immediately strike us as opposites. She is frenetic and bizarrely unready, having just stepped from the shower. He is shy and awkward. Yet as he waits for her to dress and dry her hair, Andrew discovers that Waverly’s bookcase is lined with exactly the same volumes as his – including all of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels and works by Anthony Trollope. What are the chances?
Ron, a mooching musician and neighbor, shows up followed by his silent, barely-clad friend Nancy. They settle in with Waverly and Andrew, ending all chances for a real first date. But then Waverly really doesn’t want to leave her apartment. Removed as she is from New York, Waverly has a vital connection. Her identical twin sister Wendy lives in lower Manhattan, and hasn’t been heard from since the attacks. Waverly is tethered to her phone, and the whole group keeps glancing on and off at unending TV coverage of what they numbly refer to as “the thing.” They are eventually joined by Waverly’s great-aunt, none other than “Joyce Carol Oates,” whose plane to New York has been grounded in Minneapolis. What are the chances?
Over a beer-fueled game of cards with constantly changing rules, the fivesome have a spirited discussion on where chance stops and choice begins. What agency do we really have over our lives and to what extent is the script already written? On a micro level, what individual choices over time brought Waverly and Andrew together? And on a much grander level, what determined who would be in the Twin Towers when they fell?
Questions like these gain top-of-mind traction during times of enormous tragedy. But some annoyances in Wright’s play distract from our contemplation. The coin toss is a tease and the chimes are interruptions that remove us from the action while we wonder, unprofitably, what other courses could have been taken. One has to ask, too, why Waverly would even think about keeping her date with Andrew under the circumstances, and why great-auntie Joyce really needs to show up.
Despite the play’s flaws, Prologue’s actors do a great job of imbuing what could be “typed” characters with humanity and sometimes comic relief. Kari Ginsburg as Waverly is an inspired blend of headstrong energy tempered with clutching fear. Jacob Yeh as Andrew combines nerdiness with empathy and moral backbone. Jonathan Feuer’s portrayal of Ron shines with hilarious timing. Molly Shayna Cohen does what she can with very little – communicating Nancy’s forlorn mood without words and Joyce Carol Oates’ character with nuance and charm. They are well-directed by Jason Tamborini, Founding Artistic Director of Prologue Theatre.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s scenic design contains many touches that remind us that even though 9-11 in some ways feels like yesterday, materially, we’ve evolved light years since then. Were we really carrying around those huge prehistoric cell phones such a short time ago? Weren’t all TVs flat screen? Likewise, Alison Samantha Johnson’s costume design echoes substantial change. Waverly’s cinched trousers and big chunky shoes have long since been relegated to the back of most closets.
Written just after 9-11, Wright’s play is one of many possible responses to this tragedy. One hopes a more deft and definitive treatment of this turning point in American life will emerge from the wings.
Running time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Recent Tragic Events plays through February 16, 2020, at Prologue Theatre performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 399-7993 or purchase them online.
Lighting Designer, Paul Callahan; Sound Designer, Kenny Neal