Natalie Boland stands in front of an apartment set designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson and makes the opening remarks that regular theatergoers are accustomed to. Then she asks for a volunteer to flip a coin. This chance event, heads-or-tails, Boland explains, will determine how the script diverges at various points that will be identified by an audible tone.
Someone knocks on a door. Waverly (Kari Ginsburg) rushes to the door, her hair wrapped in a towel. Her nervous blind date, Andrew (Jacob Yeh), has arrived, holding a bottle of Syrah in one hand and a Joyce Carol Oates novel in the other.
Andrew manages the bookstore at the Minneapolis airport. Waverly works in advertising. Were the action not set on September 12, 2001, we might be watching the pilot episode of a sitcom about a sweet couple and their zany neighbors and co-workers in the Twin Cities. Instead, the television plays non-stop reportage from Ground Zero in New York. Neither wanted to cancel the date. To Andrew’s surprise, Waverly is the spitting image of a woman he met while visiting New York two weeks earlier. Coincidentally, Waverly has yet to hear from Wendy, her zanier twin sister who lives in New York. Waverly’s bookcase seems to be almost the twin of Andrew’s: They both love Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Bishop. Though she hasn’t read them yet, Waverly also has all of Joyce Carol Oates’ books. (The novelist, Andrew’s favorite, is also Waverly’s great-aunt.) Playwright Craig Wright uses these coincidences to ratchet up the paranoia many felt while fearing another attack. It’s no accident that costume designer Alison Samantha Johnson has dressed Waverly in a robe with fractal patterns on it.
Soon, Ron (Jonathan Feuer), a neighbor from down the hall, arrives. Though he presents himself as easy-going, delivering such catchphrases as “synergy,” “flow of energy,” and “do what you gotta do” in a distinctive Minnesota accent, he’s the sort of neighbor only tolerated on television, with a habit of arriving unannounced and opening bottles of wine without asking. He claims to be so sensitively attuned that he can hear the tones that signify the divergences in the script. Ron’s largely silent lady friend, Nancy (Molly Shayna Cohen), soon joins them for pizza, dressed only in a long nightshirt. Once the second act begins, Joyce Carol Oates, taking the form of a sock puppet on Cohen’s right arm, joins the quartet for beers and a peculiar card game of Wendy’s invention. Her plane has been grounded due to the national emergency.
It takes a skillful ensemble to maneuver the play’s philosophical aporia, loopy comedy, and the ever impending dread all at the same time, and director Jason Tamborini aptly leads his capable cast.
The question of free-will versus fate has been a theme of tragedy since Oedipus first visited the Oracle at Delphi. Whether we live in a deterministic or probabilistic universe, at the very least, we experience ourselves as having free-will. Fictitious characters in a scripted drama only have the appearance of that experience, if the playwright decides to write them that way. As much as the characters protest throughout the run that they have free-will, their protests have been authored. Meanwhile, Ron, as an advocate of determinism and easy-going dude, without any indication that he studied either history or the jihadist ideology that animates al-Qaeda, soon explains that the attacks were made inevitable by the hubris of building the Twin Towers and the 1948 founding of the modern state of Israel in a part of the world where Jews were not wanted.
When tragedies occur, it is easier to claim that history is determined by simple equations than it is to examine the complexity and messiness of human agency. Ironically, it’s only sock-puppet Oates who seems to articulate humanist outrage.
Recent Tragic Events premiered in August 2002 at D.C.’s own Woolly Mammoth Theatre, just 11 months after 9/11. Prologue Theatre’s production demonstrates that Wright’s play, like a wine of a certain vintage, has aged very well, and still speaks to our anxieties about a world that seems beyond our control and understanding.
To Feb. 16 at1333 H St. NE. $20–$35. (202) 399-7993. prologuetheatre.org.