SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — “You’re funny,” remarks one character lost in the upside-down universe that is “Wonder of the World” — “funny and sad at the same time!” The Contemporary Theater Company’s new production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist play teeters dangerously at the precipice between madcap comedy and family psychodrama, resulting in a theatrical paradox where sorrow is never far from the surface, but is flooded over by torrents of laughter from the unlikeliest places. While CTC’s production showcases familiar farcical elements that have pleased past summer audiences, it does so while suspended over jagged shards of tragedy below.
“Wonder of the World” finds an amenable home at CTC (which performed Lindsay-Abaire’s first play, “Fuddy Mears,” in 2013) with a dark and zany sensibility that kept audiences in stitches throughout the preview show. The story focuses on Cass, who decides to pack a suitcase and leave her Park Slope home — and Kip, her husband of 7 years — behind her “for very mysterious reasons.” While there is a precipitating event which seems to trigger Cass’ decision, her frequent explanations are fluid and ambiguous (“now my synapses don’t work properly,” “I did the math wrong,” “I’m disobeying everyone,” “I’m just looking for things to do”). Whether an escape or a quest (or both), either way Cass boards a bus bound for Niagara Falls and meets Lois, a depressed alcoholic abandoned by her husband. Acerbically funny and sad, Lois is schlepping a pickle barrel to the Falls, where she intends to take her life. The two develop an improbable bond and, upon arrival in the tourist trap, split a hotel room. They become entangled with tour boat guide Captain Mike and another kooky pair, Karla and Glen, amateur private investigators hired by Kip to track down his wayward wife.
Since “Wonder of the World” opened Off-Broadway in the fall of 2001, Lindsay-Abaire has gone on to critical and popular acclaim, winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his play “Rabbit Hole” as well as penning the book and lyrics for “Shrek the Musical,” which earned him a Tony nomination. The relationship between the comic and the cosmic is a relentless tension in Lindsay-Abaire’s works. The playwright has related the “interconnectedness between humor and tragedy” to his rough upbringing in South Boston, commenting, “If I’m going to write a comedy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that, underneath it, there’s pain and hurt and desperate need.” Be aware that “Wonder of the World” handles serious themes, including suicide, murder, accidental death, marital infidelity, domestic violence, and sexual fetishism. Nonetheless, the play is often more concerned with the comic potential of a plate of trout aspic (molded in the shape of a fish, no less), an aerophobic helicopter pilot haunted by the memory of being tossed into a ceiling fan, and death by a “gargantuan” jar of peanut butter which is either unfortunate accident or premeditated murder (or, somehow, both).
CTC’s production navigates the rapid-fire comic frenzy well, while never losing its bearings on the clear and genuine stakes which bump against the show’s laughter. The show thrives on the controlled chaos, as well as the ensemble’s conscientious development of the quirky characters, all of whom could become annoyingly cartoonish in the wrong hands. Under the direction of Christopher Simpson, this absurd collection of flamboyant characters comes to resemble, over the course of the show, something of a family — a ridiculous and dysfunctional family. Alexis Ingram sets the tone in the central role of Cass by accepting her character’s journey even when it seems irrational or solipsistic. Ingram relentlessly advances the show’s primary impulse, an insistence on making sense of the search for meaning in a world where meaning is hard to find. Steph Rodger as Lois is a delightfully poignant counterpoint to Ingram’s Cass, commanding the stage with brilliant comic timing. When Cass naively protests Lois’ plan to end her life, “But you’ll die,” Lois deadpans, “Aye, there’s the rub.” And there is something of a postmodern Hamlet within her character’s wit and sensitivity underneath the heartbreaking internal conflict.
Sami Avigdor’s Kip is endearing as he comes to grips with Cass’ sudden change. “People don’t just leave their lives,” he protests impotently. Perhaps the show’s greatest wellspring of comic relief, ironically, is Avigdor’s commitment to Kip’s earnest sadness, whether sobbing over an old wedding video, crooning along to the Carpenter’s “Close to You,” or desperately unpacking a box of marriage artifacts for Cass (which includes a waffle iron, hilariously). Andrew Katzman is strong in the role of Captain Mike, a new love interest for Cass, and is perhaps most attuned to the rhythm and tone of Lindsay-Abaire’s language and knack for non sequitur. Christine Magnotta and father Kelley are winningly eccentric as the odd couple, Karla and Glen. In seven wacky roles, Rebecca Magnotta provides a steady stream of comic relief, with a virtuoso quick-change act as three waitresses at parallel tacky theme restaurants, and a key part in the show’s final coup de grâce as a clown therapist presiding over a version of the Newlywed Game.
Design elements are well-conceived, particularly Maggie Cady’s lighting which, together with Charlie Santos’ sound design, perfectly execute the rapid changes between the three restaurant scenes. Cady’s lighting transitions in the final scene are sublime and capture the show’s ambiguous epilogue beautifully. Stage design (by Rebecca Magnotta) captures the setting well, with a nostalgic postcard-perfect mural juxtaposed with the musty motel décor and other touristy spaces. Through twists and turns (and water effects), the stage is a mess at the end of the show — a good sign for any comedy or tragedy, particularly one that begins with a character neatly folding clothes into a suitcase.
Although Simpson’s Director Notes downplay the significance of the Niagara Falls location, the play thrives in this border zone — a place with multiple points of no return (and other sides) and where suicide reveals a dark undercurrent beneath the nostalgic honeymoon clichés. The tourist trap, with illusions of authenticity and freedom, provides a fitting metaphor for Cass’ own identity crisis, caught between spontaneity and constraint, seeking transformation but trapped by her own loss of self. Marriage itself, the “unknowable mystery,” becomes the central focus of Lindsay-Abaire’s wonder. Simpson himself argues for an optimistic spin on the theme, although Cass’ herself perfectly relates the absurd but penetrating middle-of-the-night realization, “who is this sleeping next to me?” Lindsay-Abaire’s characters suggest that love, in all its randomness, could be another meaning-making project (like Lois’ macramé), a futile but ultimately heroic mutual revolt against Cass’ existential question, “when does the clarity come?”
At its best, the theater can be a productive space of exploration and discovery where transition and change is made possible and audience members can shed some of the constraints of daily life to “ask big questions” — as Cass might insist. While the show does not have all of the answers, CTC’s “Wonder of the World” challenges the audience with tears and laughter (mostly laughter) and gives a chance to perceive how the two have everything to do with one another. And perhaps, while collectively staring over the edge of the waterfall, we can better understand — or wonder — what separates us and what brings us together.