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Such Things Only Happen in Books

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kathleen Butler and Clayton Apgar.
Photo by Theresa Squire.

In "Such Things Only Happen in Books," the brief play that gives the Keen Company the name for its evening of five Thornton Wilder shorts that just opened at the Clurman Theatre, the characters muse on all the devices, clichés, and tropes that always appear in novels, yet never quite materialize in real life. All the while, unbeknownst to them, equally ridiculous and unbelievable circumstances are surrounding their own existence. Hidden relationships, secret brothers, a spooky history to the house in which the family lives - it's all here. It's a way typical to Wilder of examining larger structures by peering their tiniest elements, and it's as in force in all the plays here as it is in Wilder's better-known plays such as The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town.

This is perhaps most obvious in the two works drawn from his Seven Deadly Sins cycle: "Cement Hands," in which Avarice is examined in the way a young couple's potential marriage may be influenced by the wealthy groom's unwillingness to give small tips; and the Wrath entry, "In Shakespeare and the Bible," where another fiancé's past comes back to haunt him when he discovers that he already knows his bride-to-be's aunt from, shall we say, seamier circumstances.

The other two plays expand on Biblical sources to cast some new light on contemporary views of moral obligation. Malchus, an extremely minor personage whose claim to fame is having his ear cut off by Simon Peter in John 18:10, begs God to be scrubbed from the Good Book in "Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus," but learns that some figures have even heavier burdens to bear than he. "The Angel That Troubled the Waters," loosely based on a sequence from Chapter 5 of the Book of John, finds an accomplished physician begging an angel for a healing miracle of his own.

Each of the plays is a concise, thoughtful story; most bear Wilder's trademark wit and his incisive view of human spirituality in its myriad forms. But directors Carl Forsman (handling the two Bible plays and the title entry) and Jonathan Silverstein (in charge of the Sins plays) and their actors don't inject much energy or liveliness into the proceedings. The set, by Sandra Goldmark, is a wooden shack with cloud-parquet walls suggesting an eternal, chilly tranquility that isn't right for every moment. That, combined with Josh Bradford's dim lighting, casts a sleepiness over the action. "Cement Hands" and "Such Things Only Happen in Books" are quite funny on the page, but lull about a fair amount in performance; the other three step a bit more lightly, but heavier and less crisp than is ideal.

Kathleen Butler, in the "old woman" track (playing both God to Malchus and the vengeful aunt), particularly likes chewing on her lines, which gives her scenes a feeling that's staid rather than stately. But Clayton Apgar (as the handsome young lovers), Kevin Hogan (as the distinguished older gentlemen), and Paul Niebanck (as the comic relief and, in "The Angel That Troubled the Waters," the doctor) could likewise get to their points with less deliberation. Sue Cremin does fine but undistinguished work as the Angel, the questioning wife in the title piece, and the aunt's maid. But only Pepper Binkley, as two distinct young girls in love with (maybe) the wrong men, seems to find the proper match of personality and character, bearing an optimistic realism that feels more authentically Wilder than anything else onstage.

Even so, Such Things Only Happen in Books is a fascinating, long-range view of Wilder as a complete artist; the plays, taken from all throughout his career, help fill out the visions his biggest hits have presented. If it's only intermittently satisfying on its own, it's a snug companion piece to David Cromer's brilliant Off-Broadway revival of Our Town, still playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, even if the works comprising it remind you that that show and Wilder's more popular works are better known for discernible reasons.

Such Things Only Happen in Books
Through November 14
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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