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Playwright Craig Wright opens The Pavilion with the words “This is the way the universe begins”a daunting start for a mostly comic excursion that turns out to be about nothing much more serious than a high-school reunion.
Still, it’s not an inaccurate beginning. As narrator Marty Lodge explains, the author plans to use the strained reunion of a couple whose courtship ended badly 20 years earlier to touch on notions of time, responsibility, and whether courses can be changed midstream. That’s a tall order, and it grants him license to do a bit of linguistic grandstanding.
After an opening soliloquyabout “the tiny tea leaf of consciousness” and ripples in the pool of timethat seems designed to convince anyone who caught Wright’s music in the Folger Theatre’s recent Twelfth Night that the playwright can be equally evocative when making language sing, the narrator introduces us to reunion attendees Kari (Jane Beard) and Peter (Aaron Shields). Entering the soon-to-be-demolished, century-old Minnesota dance hall that gives the play its title, they may no longer be young, but they’re still approximately as unsure of themselves as they were while having their senior pictures taken with the rest of the Pine City High School Class of ’82.
Peter’s now a psychologist whose thriving practice camouflages the fact that the years have given him little insight into human foibles generally, much less into his own. He’s arrived with a bouquet of flowers, half-expecting Kari to fall into his arms when he says he’s been pining for her, though they’ve had no contact since he left without a word of farewell shortly after graduation.
Kari understandably wishes he’d vaporize on the spot. When Peter has the temerity to say that he knows he must have hurt her, she repeats the word in quiet astonishment. “‘Hurt’….There’s a pain beyond hurt,” she says flatly, “and it’s endless,” her voice falling off so precipitously on those last three words that she seems just a few seconds shy of turning into a latter-day Medea.
She’s been nursing her fury for two decades, apparently, standing guard as fiercely over the pain of abandonment as she does over the safe-deposit boxes at the bank where she works. (Her mood probably isn’t helped by coming home each night to the golf pro who picked her up on the rebound. He barely acknowledges she’s around, and when he does, she wishes he wouldn’t.)
So Peter’s showing up unexpectedly hardly makes him her rescuer of choice, and for the balance of the first act, she finds ways to let him know that, all the while looking for support from other attendees (all played by Lodge, in various voices). After intermission, there’s a thaw of sorts, but the tension between Kari and Peter doesn’t entirely fade even when they’re sitting in the moonlight reminiscing.
“For you and me to start over,” she tells him at one point, “the whole universe would have to start over.”
Peter smiles, figuring he can get the narrator to revisit the play’s opening line, but it’s never that easy. “I’m an actor playing an actor playing an actor,” says Lodge.
Jerry Whiddon’s spare, simple stagingthere’s no set to speak of, and few propsmakes less of the play’s gimmickry than it might. Lodge is a gifted performer, but he isn’t a natural chameleon, and watching him adopt the guises of various reunion attendeesfrom a possibly lesbian do-gooder, to a perpetually stoned mayor, to a minister who believes that men have only a certain number of feelings and need to be careful not to use them all upis less fun than it probably sounds. Then again, the gimmick itself is a little tired.
Shields is fine as Peter, persuasively clueless yet managing not to be blown off the stage by Beard’s Kari. That’s no mean feat. The actress’s ferocity in her opening moments is so extreme, it appears to leave her with nowhere to go; but as the fury modulates, she makes the play’s healthiest transitionfrom anger to mere regretwith intelligence and considerable grace. Her performance should definitely give pause to anyone who’s been contemplating attending a reunion to settle scores.
That said, the evening as a whole doesn’t amount to much. Neither a thigh-slapper nor nearly as profound as it would like to seem, The Pavilion is attractively mounted and reasonably divertingqualities it shares with Arena Stage’s equally dismissible Theophilus North. It’s not quite as enervating as that Thornton Wilder opus, but it left me in a similar state of mind: wondering whatapart from a sense that a troubling world outside the theater has put audiences in the mood for something benignly unchallenging insidehad led its troupe to bother producing it. CP