To whom does a tragedy belong? In reference to specific events at the core of his compelling new play, Small Tragedy, Craig Lucas suggests three possibilities: "The participants, to those suffering, or the people watching them suffer."
Small Tragedy, playing at Playwrights Horizons through March 28, leaves the audience to ponder the answers to those questions. But though the play is set in the mid-1990s, Lucas's messages about how to deal with tragic events - and the nature of the complicity of everyone involved - could not be more relevant to our post-September 11, War-on-Terror world.
There are two tragedies into which Lucas has flung the six characters in his play. First is a new English adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex entitled Oedipus the Tyrant. It's been written by the enterprising Nathaniel (Rob Campbell), who is also directing (and playing Creon) in a production in Cambridge. Hakija (Lee Pace) is his Oedipus, Jen (Ana Reeder) is Jocasta, Christmas (Daniel Eric Gold) plays the seer Teiresias, and Paola (Nathaniel's wife, played by Mary Shultz) and Fanny (Jen's roommate, played by Rosemarie DeWitt) are the chorus.
The second tragedy begins as Hakija's, but soon becomes vital to everyone else: the Bosnian ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. Hakija says he lost his family to it and fled to the United States with the hopes of becoming an American. An economics major, it's not long before he falls in love with both the theatre and Jen, and strives to continue the process of creating a new life for himself in the United States. But he and everyone else must survive Oedipus the Tyrant first.
Nathaniel's adaptation is a slipshod one, and the actors must do most of the interpretation (and some rewriting) for him. As they get deeper into the play, they discover that the political messages they find bear an eerie relevance to their own situations: five of them are Americans who can't (or won't) see the truth until it's too late, and one is a stranger holding all their futures in his hands. Yes, their story (like that of Oedipus) boils down to the battle between fate and predetermination: what do we choose, and what is chosen for us?
But if the basic theme and dramatic device are familiar, Lucas manages to make it completely fresh. It's partially the humor - much of which comes from Nathaniel's hilariously self-important approach to directing ("The most powerful place artistically is not knowing" is one of his dicta; he also reproaches Jen to make the play more about others than herself) - and partially the scene structure and conversational style, in which any number of scenes or conversations seamlessly overlap and interweave. But it's the combination of these techniques - brought together under Mark Wing-Davey's flawless direction - that makes Small Tragedy fluid, vibrant, and exciting as it explores the otherwise well-trod ground of examining the connection between the real and the theatrical.
Even Douglas Stein's set, a black box stage with a wraparound hallway and a few pieces of furniture, helps to reduce the elements of life to those of a Greek tragedy, and elevates a play's events to the realities of life. Jennifer Tipton's lighting helps to smooth the transitions between scenes and keep the action moving at a good clip. This is never an opulent production - it often looks as spare as what Nathaniel himself might conceive - but Lucas and Wing-Davey have fully realized their complex vision.
The actors help a great deal; Campbell utterly steals the show, but just about everyone is terrific. Shultz's Paola is a masterful blend of anger and humor, Reeder brings real pain and need to Jen, Gold is just right as the determined Christmas, and Pace finds the depth Hakija - who never tells anyone the whole truth - needs to have. DeWitt is a perfectly adequate, acceptable Fanny; she doesn't mine her character quite the way the other actors do, but it's also the least effectively written of the characters.
Another flaw in the writing, albeit a minor one, is the framing device Lucas uses; having Jen narrate the show adds another level that isn't required and never really pays off. It helps ease the play into its truly chilling and captivating final scene - which briefly recalls another, equally famous Greek tragedy, before turning that, too, upside-down - but doesn't accomplish a great deal else.
The same can't be said of the rest of Small Tragedy; the cleverness and dramatic weight Lucas has infused in the play make it work better as entertainment - and real, provocative theatre - than the other September 11 plays that have hit the boards this season. In the end, Small Tragedy proves ideal for helping put into perspective - and razor-sharp focus - the tragedies that, in big or small ways, shape all our lives.