It's a formidable challenge for any playwright to tell one story while he's convincing the audience he's telling another. It's even more difficult to let the audience in on the secret halfway through, revealing a different set of dramatic rules than the ones they think they've been playing by.
Yet in Roulette, author Paul Weitz not only overcomes this difficult task, but does it with an effortless grace that makes his gambit look like child's play. He's written what's turned out to be one of the best plays of the season; connoisseurs of surprising, meaningful plays are advised to get to the John Houseman before March 14 to catch this one before it's gone.
As the show's title implies, Roulette is very much about the impact chance can have on one's life. A perfectly normal day can become extraordinary or horrifying with a roll of the dice, and once fate or chance has had its way, one is forced to live with the consequences. Weitz wisely waits to demonstrate how this will be important to the characters of Roulette, though it's obvious from the show's first few moments that it will play a vital role.
That's when Jon (Larry Bryggman), dressed in a fine business suit, begins his perfectly normal day by sitting at his dining room table, reading the newspaper, and firing a revolver straight at his head. He survives; in this game of Russian Roulette, chance is on his side, but what will happen next time? Between the gun's first and second firings, Weitz introduces the apparently ordinary people surrounding Jon in his everyday life, specifically his wife Enid (Leslie Lyles), his daughter Jenny (Anna Paquin), his son Jock (Shawn Hatosy), and their neighbors Steve (Mark Setlock) and Virginia (Ana Gasteyer). Slowly, the conflicts and problems in this previously tight-knit unit begin to emerge. Among them: Jock is on the verge of being thrown out of school; Jenny wants to pursue alcohol, drugs, and sex more openly; and Steve not only needs to borrow a large sum of money from Jon, but has also been having an affair with Enid for months, something Virginia has only recently discovered.
When the day comes to a close and Jon tempts fate yet again, Weitz and director Trip Cullman reveal the beginnings of a darker, more serious play than the first act's frequently funny and deceptively light-hearted surface might suggest. Roulette becomes then about our ties to reality, and how we perceive it or create it. Innocuous words and actions from the first act gain paramount importance as the conflicting worlds of Jon's life collide; he is now the focal point of others' words and deeds in a very different way, and as his life threatened to come apart at the seams earlier on, so does he threaten to tear others' apart now.
The result is surprisingly moving, an examination of sanity and the perception of the world with uncommon relevance; this is a play likely to touch and inspire those who have lost someone very close to them, or undergone a similarly profound life change. Weitz skillfully reminds how the comedy in all our lives can be interrupted in an instant and how fragile the threads are that can hold us and our loved ones together. Cullman has directed the piece with wit and intelligence, and those around him have done a fine job of interpreting it. Takeshi Kata's set, depicting a modern New York suburb home (and a city office in one scene), is elegantly designed and executed, while Greg MacPherson's lights and Alejo Vietti's costumes help complete the picture.
The acting is similarly detailed, and while Bryggman's character allows him the greatest depth of characterization, Leslie Lyles' quiet passion and barely subdued feelings craft an almost equally compelling character. Hatosy and Paquin work a bit more on the surface, but can delve deeper when necessary, and Gasteyer finds some big laughs in her character's own peccadilloes and eventual transformation. Setlock, recently thrust into his role when previous star Grant Shaud suddenly exited, is secure in his role, and an almost seamless addition to the company. It's difficult to imagine Shaud bringing the same easygoing appeal and rough edges to the role; Setlock's choices work well.
As do most made in Roulette. If the play's final message and direction will not necessary appeal to everyone, that's the nature of theatre, isn't it? You pay your money, you take your chances. Roulette, a thoughtful, mature look at the uncertainties of life, is more than worth a spin.