Also see Ed's review of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
Hugh Landwehr's evocative set brings us immediately to Pine City, Minnesota, where, by the shore, Peter (Michael Laurence) and Kari (Tracy Middendorf) meet at their twentieth high school reunion. He, sorta/kinda involved now with a young woman fifteen years younger, hasn't had a meaningful relationship - ever. Moreover, he is a psychologist. She is unhappily married to pompous Hans, who evidently cares more about his golf game than his wife.
On the surface, this is a familiar set-up, and who hasn't seen at least a couple of made-for-TV movies about reunions? The Pavilion, which does not immediately fire on all cylinders, eventually proves both engaging and distinctive. Actor Michael Milligan shows terrific dexterity as The Narrator, Wright's third performer. Milligan introduces the play by quickly summarizing the history of the universe until the present day. During the upcoming two hours, he must embody every other character at the reunion, both male and female. Milligan is pensive, amusing, annoying, and key to the show's success. Wright has said, "At first, it was just Peter and Kari on the dock, on the other side of the lake looking over at the pavilion." The playwright, adding dimension, infuses his piece with energy and further dimension through The Narrator. Otherwise, this might have become a boring two-hander.
For a number of reasons, The Pavilion is not what one expects and that's why it is effective theater. Laurence, as Peter, doesn't have the look of a therapist. He is frazzled, disconnected, uncertain, herky-jerky and uncomfortable. His hair isn't combed. Middendorf's Kari is tight and taut during the first act. Working at a bank in her hometown, she has a fair sense, through others, of Peter's life. Trapped within her own marriage, she carries hurt from her previous relationship with Peter, when he left her with a difficult predicament.
I give Wright the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that The Pavilion is, by intent, irritating and non-lyrical. We've been conditioned to expect such circumstances to end happily or, at the very least, with a satisfying resolution. In this case, that is not so. Landwehr's graceful set includes stars, a lovely moon, and a bunch of folding chairs. Ryan Rumery, sound designer, provides an occasional droplet of water.
The dialogue for 1988's Cutest Senior Couple is reality based. Peter and Kari could actually speak these words. On the other hand, The Narrator flits about, switching from one persona to another in a moment. He does not get in the way but his function is essential. The Narrator becomes exasperating and one has the impulse to ask him to cease so that we are able to find out what will or will not happen with Peter and Kari.
Peter, attempting to be contrite, still comes off as an awkward oaf. Sure, he plays his guitar and sings a song. He tells Kari he has only loved her. Blah, blah, blah. On the other hand, it's all to Laurence's credit that the character does not waffle. Nice job.
Middendorf is superb. During the first act, she seems so stressfully strung as if to snap. She literally wears the anxiety of the encounter and one cannot but hope for good things. After intermission, the actress softens, it seems, physically. Of course, this cannot be so as she is the same individual, still wearing the same pink dress furnished by Laurie Churba Kohn. But as Kari begins to speak with and not to Peter, Middendorf allows herself to relax. Her body language is more receptive and sympathetic. Still, she will not accept Peter's offer – to live happily ever after.
The Pavilion, capably directed by Chad Rabinovitz, is a discomfiting play. Not everyone will be receptive since, perhaps, many will anticipate a kinder, gentler, more comic piece. Wright, however, composes on a minor key, with unusual dissonance.
The Pavilion continues at Westport Country Playhouse through May 31st. For ticket information, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.
- Fred Sokol