At the beginning of Craig Wright’s “Recent Tragic Events,” a stage manager announces that an audience member’s coin flip will determine the actions of the play: A “heads” or “tails” result will cause the actors to take different paths every time we hear a bell chime.
This is a lie, of course. The chimes come thick and fast, and no actor would memorize two entirely different plays and try to keep them straight. But it’s Wright’s playful way of telling us this show will be about chance: Does fate determine what happens to all of us, or is free will at least partly responsible for our deeds?
His play must have had a painful immediacy when it came out the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. People asked those questions then. They articulated all kinds of theories, profound or nutty, including one that (as a character says in this play) such an attack was inevitable, based on America’s actions for the previous century.
But at more than a decade’s remove, the play seems less like a probing of the national psyche and more like a philosophic game that has no end point. These tragic events aren’t recent now, and the chaotic nature of the script – which mirrored the chaos in our lives at the time – has less impact today.
Waverly (Elizabeth Byland) and Andrew (Jack Utrata) begin a blind date in Minnesota on the day after the assault. She’s frantically trying to find out if her twin sister in Manhattan survived the attack; he’s puzzled by how perfect Waverly seems for him, down to the reading material on her shelves.
In comes Ron (Will Triplett), a slovenly musician from down the hall with a silent slattern (Emily Paige Ussery) in tow. He airs his deterministic theories, everybody drinks, and a knock sounds on the door: Joyce Carol Oates, Waverly’s grand-aunt, has dropped by.
But the stage manager (Devin Clark) helpfully explains that she’s not that Joyce Carol Oates; she’s another one who has written a set of novels that happens to conform by accident, word for word, to the books done by the first. And she is played by a sock puppet.
The playwright salts this silliness with a few ideas. I took Waverly and Andrew’s joint love for Trollope, Proust and others as a symbol of their need for order: Their favorite authors write about carefully structured social systems where all know their places.
Oates, on the other hand, writes almost entirely about the unfathomable darkness in human souls and the arbitrariness of violence; she’s a perfect spokesperson for the idea that we couldn’t see the attacks coming and can never make sense of them. But that’s about as deep as the author delves.
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre newcomers Byland and Uttrata do well with their characters’ reactions: She often bawls and bellows, while he’s the calm one on the other end of the emotional teeter-totter.
Triplett adds stoned, dispassionately crass humor as the guy who doesn’t seem to know his place, either in this apartment building or in the universe. He’s funny even when articulating an absurd philosophy – which, come to think of it, applies to the playwright, too.
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