Three's a Crowd
Setting a play at a high school reunion is a risky choice. Most people dread reunions. Like weddings and funerals, those two other overused plot gimmicks, the real thing is bad enough. Why sit through one where you don't even know the participants?
In The Pavilion, now onstage in its area premiere at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, Los Angeles playwright Craig Wright offers the 20th reunion of the 1983 graduating class of fictional Pine City (Minnesota) High School. Wright attempts, not successfully, to present 20 characters as universal archetypes anyone who's ever been to high school can relate to, laugh at and maybe feel some empathy toward.
Shambling around an old wooden dance hall, which is due to be demolished after the reunion, are the usual middle-aged suspects: a pothead, a slut, a burned-out preacher, a dot-com millionaire and a bully. We meet a dim gal who falls apart midparty, freaked out over getting knocked up again by her ne'er-do-well husband. There's the fat loser who quit his job at a turkey farm to work at a for-profit suicide hotline ("when it works, it's a 99-cent-a-minute bargain").
Pretty standard stuff, with dialogue as packed with weak jokes and worn-out clichés as something turned in for an adult ed course in writing for the stage. The only original twist in Wright's script is that all of these peripheral characters--and about a dozen others--are played by one actor. At Circle Theatre, he's the comically gifted Kevin Scott Keating, who stays onstage through most of both acts in his guise as The Narrator. Without Keating's unflagging energy and effortless shape-shifting, The Pavilion would be duller than study hall.
Unfortunately, Keating and his collection of colorful alter egos serve only to support the two characters who are the main focus of the play. The "cutest couple" from the class of '83, Kari (Michelle Michael) and Peter (Trey Walpole), dominate The Pavilion, forced into an awkward, overemotional face-off to hash out past hurts. Is it possible for them to rekindle some spark of passion and live happily ever after?
If Kari and Peter were in any way interesting, we might care. But Wright makes these two as bland as mayo on white toast. If only these folks were a little more Fargo and a lot less Lake Wobegon.
Kari and Peter's back story involves love at first sight, an abortion and Peter's exit to college. Kari has since married a golf pro and hung onto a dull job supervising safe deposit boxes at the local bank. Peter lives in the Twin Cities, where he's a psychologist shacked up with a much younger woman to whom he'll never commit.
Under some wild delusion that Kari will run off with him, Peter attends the reunion to make his pitch for a second chance. For the better part of two hours, these two go back and forth and round about in dialogue that wants badly to be poignant and profound but instead is both shrill and banal. Deciding to stay in her miserable, childless marriage to the golfer, Kari muses, "It's life. Bearable's the best we can hope for."
Well, kiddo, for $25 a ticket, one hopes for more than just bearable in a two-act play, and The Pavilion reaches the almost unbearable stage shortly after The Narrator opens Act 1 by saying, "This is the way the universe begins."
Then he launches into a hefty chunk of tortured poetry about how the summer air is "blood thick with insect sounds and fern fronds...the tiny leaf of consciousness spreading its bittersweet smoke." What a load. Wright, by the way, is a staff writer for the HBO series Six Feet Under, which might explain why this season's episodes have been dead on arrival.
The Narrator in The Pavilion appears to be a warmed-over imitation of the Stage Manager from Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Before intermission, The Narrator says "We'll take a short break" just the way the Stage Manager does. But that's about the only thing The Pavilion has in common with a great piece of theater. Our Town is a three-act drama that clips along (when done right) and leaves the audience moved and enlightened. The Pavilion is two hours that tick by like a double dose of algebra class. When The Narrator in The Pavilion says for the second time that "This is a play about time," there's still time to take a short nap before it's time to go home.
Director Natalie Gaupp has done an OK job staging this mediocre mess. Casting Keating in the many-layered role of The Narrator was the smartest move. He's a real find. Not that anyone's clamoring for a new production of the old chestnut Harvey, but the tall, rangy Keating would make a swell Elwood P. Dowd.
The actors playing The Pavilion's star-crossed couple don't cut it. Wispy Michelle Michael comes across as prim and thoroughly unlikable as Kari. Where her character should be vulnerable and tragic, Michael just goes crabby and sour.
As Peter, Trey Walpole is a mound of mush. Imagine Wallace Shawn trying to play a romantic lead. Walpole's Peter is too much of a nebbish to allow anyone to buy him as half of any high school's "cutest couple." And he executes egregiously awful fake-crying.
Technically, Circle Theatre's production is as flawed as the script. Bill Newberry's faux-stone set design does nothing to complement or open up the claustrophobic, subterranean space. John Leach's lighting design is flat and too bright by half for scenes set on a summery night outdoors. Barbara C. Cox gives the actors costumes so ill-fitting, they would be better off wearing their own clothes. Tiny, pale Michelle Michael gets a tiny, pale, gauzy skirt and a sleeveless blouse two sizes too big. Trey Walpole's gray-green pants are two sizes too small and cling to his backside as though the high school bully has sneaked up to give him a wedgie.
Worst moment in the whole play comes near the end when, after reliving every moment of their high school romance and the ensuing 20 years of separation, Kari says to Peter, "For you and me to start over, the whole universe would have to begin again." Peter turns to The Narrator and asks if that's possible.
Thank goodness, it's not. Any longer and this production would count as detention.
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