Slowly They Turn

In its opening scene, David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World threatens to be just another sitcom-on-a-stage. But it doesn't take long for Second Thought Theatre's sharply directed and snappily acted production to get up to frantic speed. By scene two it's clear that nothing will be the least bit predictable about this absurd comedy or its wackadoo characters.

We first see a young wife named Cass (Kristin McCollum) packing her suitcase as her befuddled husband, Kip (Steven Walters), begs her not to leave. He mentions all the fun evenings of Yahtzee that they've shared. And what about her obligations to the Park Slope food co-op and their book club? No soap. She's determined to skedaddle. Cass has found something unmentionable at the back of Kip's sweater drawer, something that hints at a secret life she wants no part of.

What that creepy secret is isn't discussed until much later. It's a doozy and a half. Kip, who hardly looks like a perv, harbors a sexual fetish so utterly vile and disgusting...OK, imagine an iconic American toy being used, even typing the words brings on galloping heebie-jeebies. But that's getting ahead of the sick fun that makes this play and its players so entertaining.

Wonder of the World zigs and zags--comedy afflicted with attention deficit disorder. Every scene explodes with surprises; characters appear out of nowhere and speak in non sequiturs laden with pop culture references. Before the revelation of Kip's "problem"--coming just at the moment when the audience has almost forgotten about it and him--the play edges out of neo-sitcom mode and into the sort of dark, nihilistic madness of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. A raised pillow becomes a surefire punch line because the joke has been set up with pinpoint accuracy. The name "Josef Mengele" produces knee-slapping laughs. It gets darker and darker and then, sproing, suddenly it's a romantic comedy again.

Lindsay-Abaire screws with all the conventions of screwball comedy. His plays tend to focus on women with oddball problems. In Fuddy Meers, it was amnesia; in Kimberly Akimbo, progeria, the premature aging disease. In Wonder of the World, Cass, the central figure, suffers from incurable optimism tinged with aching regret. When her marriage to Kip goes kaput, she writes it off to "doing the math wrong." She once thought "Kip equals X and X will make me happy...but Kip is Z," she says. As in zip, zero, zilch. If a man who appeared to be as normal as Kip actually turns out to be weird beyond belief, then how can she trust anyone again?

It's something all women wonder at some time or other--like right after we run across whatever it is he's hiding in the sweater drawer. Suddenly, life isn't what it was 10 minutes earlier. The next step is to wonder, how did this happen? What comes next?

Exploring those universal themes of confusion and wondering, the playwright sends his confused little Cass wandering off to one of the wonders of the world, Niagara Falls, on a quest to figure out the meaning of her life. The first person she meets is her Sancho Panza, a depressed alcoholic named Lois (the wonderfully droll Allison Tolman) whose immediate plan is to commit suicide by going over the falls in a pickle barrel. Cass insists that Lois become her "sidekick" instead--one of more than 200 goals Cass has scribbled in a spiral notebook. There's also "sleep with a bellboy," "eat venison," "become friends with a clown" and "watch a prisoner die by lethal injection."

Cass checks off at least half of the items on her list before we're done with her. We also get to meet charming Captain Mike (Joey Oglesby), pilot of the Maid of the Mist sightseeing boat and a symbolic life preserver for Cass; plus, a mysterious pair of hapless gumshoes (H. Francis Fuselier, Alison Davies) hired by Kip to find his runaway bride; and a trio of theme-restaurant waitresses, a nervous helicopter pilot, a bald woman and a shrink in a clown suit, all played by the magically inventive Ginger Goldman.

The nonstop action in this play leads to a zany next-to-last scene in a Niagara Falls motel room. The clown-shrink performs relationship therapy by hosting an impromptu Newlywed Game starring the six other characters--a sequence so hilarious, the actors in this production had to pause repeatedly to let the audience catch their breath from heehawing so hard. The ending turns into a bit of a shaggy dog story--coincidences link characters and events in improbable ways--and the epilogue has the dreaminess of a fairy tale, but there's an awful lot of originality and genuine sweetness here.

Once again, the Second Thought Theatre company lives up to their previous good reviews. Imagine a young Meg Ryan with better comic timing and no fish lips and you've got Kristin McCollum in the role of Cass. McCollum is given the tough task of playing a bitter woman who has to say mean things to people and still remain likable. Under those zingers, we have to get that Cass, though a bit of a nutball, is someone we'd like to know, someone we'd like to see find real happiness. McCollum, gifted with mad comic skills, does it all just about perfectly.

Director Tom Parr IV has reined in most of the actors from slipping too far into vaudeville for their broad roles (only the older pair playing the detectives don't seem to get that). With this one, rhythm and scale are crucial. It could easily look and sound as noisy and crazy as a Three Stooges sketch, but by underplaying in the intimate confines of the tiny Frank's Place theater, Wonder of the World is fall's first barrel of laughs.

Tina Modotti must have been a fascinating woman. An Italian-born actress who became a World War I-era stage star in San Francisco, Modotti later moved to Mexico, where she posed for Diego Rivera and other artists and became a skilled photographer under the tutelage of her married lover, Edward Weston. From Weston's pictures of her, projected onstage in Teatro Dallas' production of Victor Hugo Rascón Banda's new biographical play Tina Modotti, she appears to have been as earthy and beautiful as Rivera's more famous muse, Frida Kahlo.

Modotti's life and her numerous love affairs--she slept with poets, journalists, rebels and spies--might be the stuff of a great play. Banda's 75-minute drama, translated for this production by Sara Cardona, isn't it.

Tina Modotti is dotted with too many of the hallmarks of very bad plays: a single character talking to herself on an empty stage; recorded voices speaking a character's interior thoughts; awkward, one-sided telephone calls; lines of dialogue that serve only to lay out boring bits of exposition ("I'm going to focus my photography in the service of the revolution," Tina says); a melodramatic death scene; and an overload of intrusive sound effects. Directed by Cora Cordona and starring her daughter Elena Harvey Hurst in the title role, the play feels choppy and amateurish. Some scenes last little more than a few seconds, leaving the audience in the dark for too many changes. When she's not being interviewed by other characters, Tina stands center stage to read speeches and letters (a playwright's cop-out). And then there's the other Tina, played by Leticia Analiz, who also plays a sister, a mother and other characters. When it becomes a Tale of Two Tinas, it all turns a tiny bit too confusing.