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Maids of the mist: (l-r) Steeves and Naughton in Wonder of the World.

A Barrel of Laughs

 By James Yeara

Wonder of the World

By David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Rob Ruggiero

Barrington Stage Company, Lenox Memorial High School, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 5

The picaresque Wonder of the World receives the perfect production by the peripatetic Barrington Stage Company at the Duffin Theatre in Lenox Memorial High School. Awaiting the opening of its new home in Pittsfield, BSC mines comic gold with this recent off-Broadway Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle. Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the pace fast, the performances exact and dead on—not sloppily indulgent as could easily happen—and the result is a laugh filled hit. This is as fun as racing over the Niagara Falls in a barrel and living to laugh about it.

This is the central act of Wonder of the World, going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Laughing about it sums up the audience’s response to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s non-sequitur-filled absurdist romp from Brooklyn to Niagara Falls, with stops all along the twisted psyches of the main couples. George S. Kaufman would have written Wonder of the World for the Marx Brothers if only he had had enough mescaline.

The story is an extended riff on the Marilyn Monroe film Niagara, in which Monroe is a newlywed on her honeymoon plotting to kill her husband; an onstage TV shows the movie while the audience files in. Wonder of the World traces the physical and psychic journeys of runaway wife Cass (Keira Naughton), who impulsively flees her seemingly boring, but secretly kinky, husband Kip (Brian Hutchison). With respect to Kip, a man bearing aspic should always be suspect, but it’s his secret box filled with Barbie heads that gets the audience howling with laughter, especially when Cass makes “Vivian,” Kip’s sexual favorite, bounce along in one of play’s many hysterical epiphanies.

Cass hooks up with Lois (Finnerty Steeves) on a Greyhound to Niagara Falls, and the epiphanies multiply faster than roadkill on I-90. Lois plans to commit suicide by climbing into the pickle barrel between her thighs and going over the Falls because her husband left her; Cass has “a list of things I wanted to do in life: eat venison. Become friends with a clown. Visit a prison and witness an execution by lethal injection.” Lois’ husband left her suddenly just as Cass left her husband, so of course Lois becomes Cass’ sidekick thus enabling Cass to mark off another “to do” on her list.

The play moves from one darned thing after another, all woven together and connected as if this were a contemporary Candide. (Though set, preposterously, to the Carpenters’ “Close to You.”) Kip hires addled elderly couple Karla (Libby George) and Glen (William Bogert), who have failed at all their previous jobs, to track down Cass; they succeed by mistake, and find that Karla has hooked up by chance with Maid of the Mist boat pilot Captain Mike (William Bogert). What follows is a set piece with Captain Mike and Cass at a medieval-fair-themed restaurant center-stage; Lois and Karla at an Indian Reservation-themed restaurant stage-left; and Kip and Glen at “Maison de Macabre,” a goth restaurant stage-right; they are serviced by “Mary Pickerling,” “Walks-with-a-Tray,” and “Gormina Gallows” in tour-de-force lightening-quick-change characterizations by Susan Louise O’Connor.

Wonder of the World’s various murders, accidents, misprisions, non sequiturs, happenstances, misfortunes, lucky breaks, epiphanies, and shocking revelations play out to a logical conclusion: stuck in a barrel stuck on the rocks just at the apex of the Falls. It’s a moment in homage to all things worth pulling at Niagara: salt-water taffy, fudge, Marilyn Monroe, and your leg. Wonder of the World is guaranteed laughs.

Southern Gothic

Sweet Bird of Youth

By Tennessee Williams, directed by David Jones

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 30

Sweet Bird of Youth’s origins as a one-act play are easily discernible: The series of disjointed scenes between the opening and closing ones between the fading hustler Chance (Derek Cecil) and the on-a-bender faded movie star Princess (Margaret Colin) beg for deconstruction. Focusing exclusively on the two Chance-and-Princess scenes bookending Sweet Bird of Youth makes for convenient criticism; Chance and Princess are variations on characters seen in Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer, and the carnality, self-awareness, self-abasement, and violence displayed are riveting and disturbing.

The opening post-coital scene—Derek Lane’s sensual set of Princess’ Royal Palms Hotel room in the afterglow of David Weiner’s honey-toned light de sign—pulls in the audience as the allegorical couple roil and toil on Easter Sunday morning, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” sounding from a nearby church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Cecil’s Chance and Colin’s Princess are an attractive couple of aptly named monsters, sucking first oxygen from a tank, then alcohol, then hash, then each other.

From their negotiations for Princess’ sexual release and Chance’s spiritual need for his long-lost hometown girl Heavenly Finley (Bess Wohl)—the symbolism gets heavy quickly in the play like the humid Southern air—through attempted blackmail to the scene’s conclusion, the audience empathizes. They watch, mesmerized. Cecil’s Chance more than meets his match in Colin’s sultry voiced, achingly beautiful, ultimate “Cougar” Princess. You can feel the sting of the sex and the hash and the whiskey, and you want to know what happens to these desperate decadents.

This visually and aurally honey-themed opening of negotiated copulations is perfectly matched by the closing scene’s midnight blue and starlight sparkle of sacrifice. Colin captures the elation of Princess’ surprising career resurrection on Easter evening, and her alarm that Chance will sacrifice his manhood and his life for Heavenly’s love. Director David Jones’ wise staging makes this ultimate violence palpable with ending image of ersatz patrician Boss Finley’s henchman surrounding Chance with their switchblades open to cut.

So ignoring the intervening three scenes (more than half) of Sweet Bird of Youth is convenient. Who would believe that a ruling politician like Boss Tom Finley (a frighteningly believable Gerry Bamman) would have a campaign “crusade” to preserve family decency despite his daughter Heavenly being debauched by Chance? “My daughter’s no whore, but she’s had a whore’s operation,” Boss frets to Dr. George Scudder (Ted Koch), the man who performed the abortion and who has Boss’ approval to marry Heavenly, and Tom Finley Jr. (Christopher Evan Welch, who takes a caricature and creates a character). How could any ruling politician shelter a son like Tom Jr., who had “grades that only a moron would have an excuse for,” whose drinking excesses had to be covered up, but is still accepting his father’s mantle to carry on political power? Who could believe a 1959 play highlighting the hypocrisy of a ruling politician like Boss Finley campaigning on huge TV screens upstage about the “Northern radical press” misrepresenting his moral “crusade” while his mistress waits in the bar of the Royal Palm Hotel? Why not ignore Williams far-fetched contrivances that a ruling politician would intimidate dissent “because the Voice of God called me to execute this mission” by having his henchman rough up a heckler?

Sweet Bird of Youth is easy to enjoy for the one-act arc of Princess and Chance, but it is the risk of the almost-over-the-top middle half of the play that makes Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production so relevant and ultimately riveting today.

—James Yeara


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