There is an inherent problem with introducing a mystery in a play. Not only must the answer (or at least enough of it) be revealed to avoid frustrating the audience, so must the answer be significant enough to have been worth all the trouble in the first place. Wonder of the World, the new play by David Lindsay-Abaire at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is a wonderful example of both how to do this and how not to do this.
The first (and more successful) mystery is what the husband of Cass Harris (Sarah Jessica Parker) did to make her want to leave him. She's packing her suitcase in the show's first scene, and she is as determined to go as Kip (Alan Tudyk) is for her to stay. Much to his distress, she wins out and hops the first bus to Niagara Falls where she hopes to find out more about herself, and do everything she always wanted to do (from a list of over 200 possibilities).
Along the way she meets Lois (Kristine Nielsen), a suicidal alcoholic who is planning on traversing the falls in a barrel. The two become fast friends, and when they get to Niagara Falls, they also come to know a strange couple, Karla and Glen (Marylouise Burke and Bill Raymond) who are most likely not what they appear to be (since they appear to be so many different things), and the charming boatman Captain Mike (Kevin Chamberlin), with whom Cass has a quick fling that turns into much more. There are also a number of other bizarre eccentrics who bear a striking resemblance to each other and are all played with comedic aplomb by Amy Sedaris.
When the solution to the mystery of Kip and Cass's problems is revealed at the end of the first act, it fulfills nearly every comic wish you could have. (Suffice it to say, Cass has a very good reason for not wanting to talk about it!) Beyond that, though, Lindsay-Abaire knows how to play off of this. After the mystery is revealed, there is still a full act to go, and he makes sure the second act is funnier and more robust than the first. His characters throughout are rich and full, deeply comic, but also surprisingly urgent.
Director Christopher Ashley is tremendously helpful here. He keeps the comic pace high over the course of the show, and is so in tune with Lindsay-Abaire's script that he gets out of places you might never expect. (Who would think the words "Josef Mengele" be a showstopper?) David Gallo's endlessly creative set is almost like another character in the play, and Ken Billington's lights and David C. Woolard's costumes complement everything else nicely. Each of the performances is nearly comic perfection, with each so integral to the show, it's impossible to really single one out.
But what of the second mystery of Wonder of the World?
Alas, it presents the one problem in the show only slightly less navigable than Niagara Falls in a barrel. When the sunny surface of Cass is stripped away as the second act approaches its conclusion, and her darker side is brought to the forefront, problems start cropping up. The script suddenly makes her much more difficult to like, with the motivation behind her choices and the doors she closes anything but clear. Rooting against her just feels wrong; unfortunately, at that point, so does rooting for her, but nothing in the script, direction, or Parker's performance suggests we should do otherwise. The imbalance causes the show to spiral out of control, and a contrived sequence of events results in a far from satisfying ending, punctuated by out-of-character introspection, despite being beautifully staged.
Unlike the question of why Kip left Cass, the answer to the mystery of why this ending is necessary will most likely remain unanswered. It's a shame that Lindsay-Abaire, Ashley, and Parker had to let their guard down in the play's final moments; until then, the comedy, performances, and earnest sentiment in Wonder of the World seemed almost as naturally beautiful as Niagara Falls itself.
Manhattan Theatre Club