Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Theater

THE PAVILION
By Craig Wright. Directed by Lucie Tiberghein. Now in previews toward a September 20 - October 9.
Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theate
224 Waverly Place, west of Seventh Avenue between 11th and Perry Streets,
(212) 868-4444, rattle stick.org.

Lovers’ quarrel: Actors Brian Darcy James and Jennifer Mudge face off in this Pulitzer-nominated play.

The new Lake Wobegon

Minnesota playwright brings small town life, regrets to the stage

By Jerry Tallmer

You can take the boy out of Minnesota, but you can’t take Minnesota out of the boy.

It is in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes that playwright Craig Wright spent the years from age 14 to 36.

His “Recent Tragic Events,” a sharp short drama done at Playwrights’ Horizons a couple of seasons ago, was about twin sisters, one of whom, an advertising executive in Minnesota, is sweating out whether the other has survived 9/11 in New York. And now comes “The Pavilion,” which takes place in a town called Pine City on the shore of one of those ten thousand lakes. Amidst a tangle of lives at a high-school reunion, a man who ran out on the girl he got pregnant 20 years earlier tries to overcome her scorn and get her back.

 You can also try to take the boy out of Proust and Dante and Dylan Thomas and Goya and Bergson and Joyce and Saroyan and Thornton Wilder, but within “The Pavilion” there are hints of all those people, from lines like “Christ is born, and a second later, nailed to a tree” (Dylan Thomas, Francisco Goya) to “In the middle of life, we find ourselves alive” (Dante, William Saroyan).

Most of those reflections are voiced during what might be called prologues to Act I and Act II, none of which keeps the mortal stuff at the center of the play – the Proustian passage of lives and years that do not turn out the way anyone expected – from being tough, startling, and fully believable.

Under the direction of Lucie Tiberghein, “The Pavilion” is now in previews toward a September 20 opening. Brian Darcy James plays Peter, the man in case; Jennifer Mudge plays Kari, the ditched girl 20 years later, long married to a sexual boor, and Stephen Bogardus is both the narrator and a batch of other interlocking characters

This is the fourth Craig Wright play set in a fictional Pine City, Minnesota. Why Pine City? “Because everyone in my plays always seems to be pining. And then,” says Wright, “after I’d written ‘The Pavilion,’ I found out that there was a real Pine City and it even had a real pavilion.”

Life imitates art and vice versa.

“This play,” says Wright, “is very loosely based on an experience that happened to a friend of mine” – not the high-school reunion, but Wright’s friend’s long-ago abandonment of a pregnant girl. In the play, the boy’s father leaned on him to dump her (“Son, here’s what we’re gonna do”), and Peter – the Peter of 20 years earlier –caved in.

Which bespeaks a certain cowardice, no?

“Um-hm,” said Craig Wright, a few hours before catching a plane back to Los Angeles, where the Minnesotan has spent the past three years writing for hit television shows like “Six Feet Under” and “Lost.”

And it takes Peter 20 years to change his mind?

“To run out of gas,” says Wright. To realize that two decades later, his whole life, emotionally, is running on empty.


One feels distant echoes of Molly Bloom, Joyce’s powder-keg poetic embodiment of Womanhood, in Kari’s powerful Act II soliloquy that begins: “This morning, Hans [her husband] was inside me, right?”

“I agree,” says Wright. “But as the author of ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegans Wake’ has said, the artifacts and constructs in our life are a lot more mysterious and lasting than anyone knows. So the universals [of art and life] are pretty much the same.”

But what I like in a play, I explain, are the specifics.

“Yes,” says Wright, “but specifics are different sorts of windows that open onto the same fields.”

There’s a good deal of talk about eternity in your prologues, I say.

“Yes,” says Wright, “but to me it’s necessary. There has to be a beginning. There has to be a box. I will say this: There are two ways to think about beginnings: one, the Big Bang; two, before the Big Bang, an impetus to have a Big Bang. Life seems to feel that way, to me – as if life were already constructed.”

Sounds reminiscent of whatchamacallit, that thing that’s going around. Intelligent Design?

“But I’m talking about the opposite,” says Wright. “Not of an intelligence designing reality, but of an intelligence destroying itself. When things go wrong in life, I don’t think there’s anyone out there to help. Things proceed according to a random chaotic mechanism.”

This from a man who at the age of 29, Jewish at birth, entered Minnesota’s United Theological Seminary at a black moment in his playwriting career–when an early work of his was canceled at the Hartford Stage Company (“I thought: Well, maybe I can become a minister”)—and who has in the past given cabaret readings-cum-performances of the Gospel of St. Mark (á la Alec McCowen on Broadway).

Why Mark? Wright has been asked. “It’s short,” was his jesting answer. But now he says: “Because a text like that, when written down in the Bible, comes out a lot more foundational and immovable than I think it was really meant to be. When you say it out loud, it seems a lot more flexible, plangeable, open, and creative. Not a monument.”

 How would that tie back to “The Pavilion”?

“Only in that we’re the only creatures on the planet that use language and have invented God.”

A God who would permit, for instance, this past fortnight at New Orleans?

As a matter of fact, a third of the way into “The Pavilion” there’s a song Peter sings to his onetime classmates. Here are two stanzas:

SO COME MY ANGEL COME MY PRIZE
WE’LL GO DOWN IN THE RUINED WORLD
DON’T VEIL YOUR FACE DON’T HIDE YOUR EYES
SEE THE OIL IN THE WATER SWIRL
 
THE SCENT’S ENOUGH TO SPIN YOUR HEAD
BUT OH HOW THE COLORS CURL
WE SETTLE FOR A BEAUTY SUNK IN CHAINS
DOWN IN THE RUINED WORLD

Those lines could have been written about New Orleans, though they weren’t, they predated it. Wright’s wife, Lorraine LeBlanc, is from what was once New Orleans. They are the parents of 16-year-old Louis, with whom Wright has sometimes debated the Gospel of St. Mark.

Craig Wright was born June 15, 1965, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the places where his father “worked for conglomerates, closing things down, reconfiguring projects – sort of a hatchet man, really.” His father was also married six times.

Wright “was always writing various things.” At 21 wrote his first play, “Crocodiles.” It won him a Jerome Foundation fellowship, but has never been produced and doubtless will never be. Has current commissions from the Actors’ Theater of Louisville and the Harford Stage Company (ah hah!). “I take commissions a lot. It keeps me in the theater.”

It was the poet James Merrill who 10 or more years ago said to Craig Wright that the highest achievement in poetry was that of Dante; the highest achievement in prose, Marcel Proust. But it’s another Frenchman, philosopher Henry Bergson (1859-1941), that Wright has been recently reading.

“In Bergson, you find a similar world to ‘Pavilion’ floating around. Bergson tries to advise us that moments are not” – Craig Wright’s hands chop up and down, like chopping chips off a log – “but in a line, a sort of extension. Not that I was right,” says Wright, “because no one is right.”

Peter certainly isn’t. Nor Kari, either. Kari Hari-Kari, as Peter calls her. At the Pavilion it’s time for the sweetheart dance, everybody. After which, the dear old Pavilion is going to be torched by the Fire Department before it falls down. 

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