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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Pavilion: Contemporary American Play
With the Feel of a Classic

also see Bob's review of I Am My Own Wife

This is the way the universe begins ...

Pavilion
Kate Eastwood Norris, Andrew Polk, Eric Steele
Thus begins the lovely new American play by Craig Wright which is being offered for our delight and delectation at the Two River Theatre. It is spoken by The Narrator (Andrew Polk) who also portrays all but two among the three dozen attendees whom we meet at the 20th anniversary reunion of the 1986 high school senior class of the fictional town of Pine City, Minnesota. The setting for the reunion is The Pavilion, an old lakeside dance hall which is about to be demolished.

Poetically, but seemingly impenetrably, The Narrator describes the beginning of the universe. Then he delivers a brief, kaleidoscopic history of civilization, climaxing with a brief history of Peter Mollberg (Erik Steele). Peter is a 38-year-old psychologist who has made a mess of his relationships and is emotionally bereft. Peter had cruelly and selfishly abandoned his high school sweetheart Kari (Kate Eastwood Norris) when she became pregnant in the summer following their graduation. Now, although he knows that Kari has long been married, Peter has come to woo and win Kari. Peter believes that if he can revive their long ago relationship, he can bring emotional stability and happiness to his life.

The play is both timeless and contemporary. The physical setting, consisting of a six wooden benches on a platform jutting squarely into the auditorium and, I would estimate, 70 or so clear electric bulbs hanging at varying heights from the ceiling from electric cords in front of and all about the stage, suggests a universe beyond its particular time and setting. While the language and the professional concerns of many of the attendees are clearly of our time, it is Peter's attitude which is particularly contemporary. We live in a time and place where people's sense of entitlement knows no bounds. Peter believes that a few words of apology can set things aright. Even his apology is nothing more than an attempt to exculpate himself by placing the blame for his actions on his father (can anyone make an 18-year-old do something that he really does not want to do?). Peter could only delude himself to believe he could so easily obtain forgiveness from the notion that nothing in the world should stand in the way of his own needs. The account of the events in Kari's life and of whom she has become in the intervening years is riveting and heartbreaking.

In both style and substance, The Pavilion has the rich feeling of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (Since seeing the play and observing this, I have discovered that this comparison has been made by many since its 2000 world premiere at Pittsburgh's City Theatre). This derives to a degree from the employment of a narrator in telling us about a small town. Even more so, it is a result of its ethereal feeling, its portraits of townsfolk (reunion attendees here), and the sense that Pine City, like Grover's Corners, is a small but integral part of a large cosmos. The latter is one example of the poetics employed by Wright adding richness to his creation.

Andrew Polk as The Narrator is the heart and soul of this production. Notice how he positions himself about the stage to catch every word and gesture of Peter and Kari as they confront one another. His expressions variously convey an alert curiosity, skepticism, amusement, and the confirmation of that already understood by him. However, there is always present the detachment of a wise outsider. While we cannot be quite sure just who our narrator is, in Polk's capable hands, he is always a very interesting fellow. Polk's portrayals of the other attendees are delicious. With a stunning array of speech patterns, voices, and mannerisms, Polk faultlessly strides the narrow line between realism and caricature to create a stunning portrait gallery that must contain some of both in order for each portrait to be both real and representative.

Erik Steele brings believability and earnestness to the all too human Peter. While Peter is not admirable, Steele always makes him understandable and real. It is to the credit of Steele and his author and director that it is impossible not to sadly observe aspects of ourselves and those close to us in his portrayal. Kate Eastwood Norris slowly and with admirable restraint bares the tortured soul of Kari. Although a most sympathetic character, Kari is certainly not incapable of cruel selfishness, and its impact is compounded when Norris wisely displays no regret or emotion as she discloses it.

This production marks the introduction to the Two River audience of the company's new artistic director, Aaron Posner. Posner directed its premiere production, and clearly has been instrumental in its inclusion in this season's schedule. His direction of this production is flawless. The scenic design (David P. Gordon) and lighting design (Deb Sullivan) coalesce to create the perfect mood and setting for maximizing the mood and impact of the piece.

Earlier on, I referred to Wright's "seemingly impenetrable" poetic description of the beginning of the universe. In good time, Wright's meaning is rewardingly revealed. Wright describes creation as an ongoing moment-to-moment process of which we are all a part:

At every single moment, the whole creation is beginning again ... And so we have to say yes to time, even though it means speeding forward into memory, forgetfulness and oblivion. Say no to time, hold on to what you were or what she was, hold onto the past, even out of love, and I swear it will tear you to shreds.

The arrival of Craig Wright's The Pavilion is an auspicious occasion in every way for Red Bank's Two River Theatre Company. If you have not yet made acquaintance with this gem of a theatre, there can be no time better than the present to do so.

This is the way the universe begins ...

The Pavilion continues performances through February 4 (Wed. 1 p.m./ Thurs., Fri., Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m.) at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online www.trtc.org/.

The Pavilion by Craig Wright; directed by Aaron Posner

Cast
The Narrator……………….Andrew Polk
Peter…………………………..Erik Steele
Kari…………..Kate Eastwood Norris


Photo: Mike McLaughlin


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- Bob Rendell



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