The latest entry in the somewhat new genre of September 11 comedy, Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, is a far cry from the just-opened Omnium Gatherum. Aside from its distinctive lead performer (film star Heather Graham, making her New York stage debut), it's both more and less profound, and more and less than what's required to explore the dramatic underpinnings of such a, well, tragic event.
But where Omnium Gatherum gets social and political, Recent Tragic Events gets more personal and ephemeral. It's to Wright's creative credit that he chose to look at the event from the standpoint of the thousands or millions of tiny events that lead anyone to survive or die on that (or any) day, reducing the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to some amorphous form of chance.
Wright demonstrates this, before the first act's principal action begins, with a coin toss; the stage manager (Kalimi A. Baxter), running the demonstration, assures us that the outcome will affect the way certain events play out or, perhaps, cause them not to happen at all. Thus, the first act, we're told, will be punctuated by chimes from the theater's sound system every time one character reaches a possible moment of transition. But the story is basically this: Andrew (Hamish Linklater) and Waverly (Graham) decide to spend their pre-arranged blind date at Waverly's apartment, because she has been unable to contact her twin sister Wendy, who lives in New York but had no reason to be near the World Trade Center when it was attacked.
The action is just about that sullen and routine, peppered with the false-alarm phone calls and accompanying histrionics, sobering realizations about September 11th's significance, and even some comic relief from the people down the hall (Ron and Nancy, played by Jess J. Perez and Colleen Werthmann). The show's comedy goes a bit more slapstick as everyone prepares for the arrival of author Joyce Carol Oates (related to Waverly and greatly admired by Andrew), detoured to Minneapolis after the attacks, and she arrives just as the first act ends.
The intermission of Recent Tragic Events is unavoidably uncomfortable, as the show is still an unknown quantity. Certain observations are possible - most of the performers (especially Graham) seem vacantly one-note about events, Michael John GarcÚs's direction tends to linger happily on the comic but seldom the serious, Adam Stockhausen's apartment set is charmingly modern - and they still apply through the rest of the play.
What doesn't apply is Wright's first-act grip on reality and adherence to his own established conventions. If, in dictating characters' actions with a coin toss, Wright played only one of his cards in the first act, the second starts with a royal flush as it moves from the pedestrian to the bizarre and the highly theatrical. The second act takes the theme of chance dictating events and expands and fractures it, allowing the play to blossom into a poignant treatise on free will.
Wright does much better when he doesn't feel he has to play games with the audience; the honesty of the second act, as the characters really delve deep into their own cosmic vulnerability, comes more readily to him than the first's strained comedy. Oates's analysis of loss and freewill as related to September 11, for example, is one of the most powerful I've yet heard. That the audience was almost completely still during this monologue is one thing, but that Oates was being portrayed by a sock puppet on Werthmann's hand is something else entirely.
But the puppet is hardly a gimmick; it's as essential to the show's overall theme as September 11 itself. Wright demands to know what we control and what we don't. In what ways are we all puppets playing the game of forces we don't understand? And what assurances do we have that, when we declare as so many did about September 11, that life feels like a movie (or a play), that's not exactly what it is?
Wright is devoted to asking those questions, and when he turns his introspective gaze toward the audience, his show can be intensely moving and thrilling. Well, the second act at least. The first act depicts a play Wright had no intention of writing, and it shows. But taken as a whole, Recent Tragic Events is anything but tragic. It's cathartic.