Review: Wonder of the World by City Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs
David Lindsay-Abaire's farce Wonder of the World echoes the proud claim of promoters of Niagara Falls, which is the desperation destination for the protagonists. They're an odd couple (think of Neil Simon's Oscar Madison and Felix Unger), two women who meet up on a Greyhound bus in route to Niagara. Cass, the exuberant blonde, has a long list of "must do" items accumulated over seven years of deeply humdrum marriage to Kip, her dully earnest, clueless husband. Cass intends to throw herself at life. Her reluctant traveling companion and eventual unwilling partner is Lois, the glum abandoned spouse with the firm intention to throw herself as well—but over the falls to her death. She has brought a barrel aboard the bus for just that purpose.
The plot is formulaic, and Lindsay-Abaire was clearly having fun. I knew of the playwright through his perceptive and deeply humane dramas Good People and Rabbit Hole, so I was momentarily taken aback as he piled up incongruous characters and bizarre events. A quick search of my own website, CTXLT, reminded that he'd also done the libretto for Shrek, the Musical, so perhaps there was no reason to be surprised that he was aiming to out-Ludwig Ken Ludwig, creator of such gems as Leading Ladies, Lend Me a Tenor, Baskerville, and the stage adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, all of them popular with little theatres right across Central Texas.
You create your concept and anchor it with your bickering but almost-joined-at-the-hip protagonists, then scheme up a disgruntled ex-spouse (Cass's) and drop in comic relief by peopling the rest of playworld. Jill Klopp Turner plays Cass, leaving her dull married existence behind, as an almost giddy Barbie girl in a Barbie world, spontaneous and excited at new prospects, while Robyn Conner as Lois is her bleak, deadpan opposite.
Directing this jumpy, nutty story, City Theatre's Andy Berkovsky has the advantage of casting actors who give resonance and comic depth to the goings-on. The group includes all four principals of Beyond August Productions, who appeared together in City Theatre's 2017 staging of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts: Klopp Turner and Conner, playing the odd-couple protagonists, Patrick Wheeler as husband Kip, and chameleon-like Sharon Embry in six small, flamboyant, and wildly entertaining roles. In addition, as married couple Karla and Glen, Jennifer Gonzalez and Kirk Kelso are amateur private investigators on a par with Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, with the advantage that instead of wearing trench coats, they appear in disguises (I loved those bellhop uniforms—but does that profession even exist anymore, outside of Wes Anderson movies?).
Sailing unperturbed through all the confusion is Kevin Anderson as Captain Mike, master of the tour ship "Maid of the Mist." Anderson delivers the captain in courteous monotone, ever affable, as dim as the Niagara mists through which he steers. We learn soon enough that after the strange death of his wife, Captain Mike threw himself over the falls and yet survived—perhaps that long immersion accounts for his cheerful, glazed eyes and lack of passion.
Plot turns and coincidences and gags pile up, until a finale in which (I kid you not) Embry as a licensed marriage counselor and part-time birthday clown conducts group therapy with the rest of the lot, playing The Newlywed Game. That boffo finale reaches a climax when a pistol goes off and leaves one of the characters not only merely dead but really quite sincerely dead.
The coda has both Cass and Lois bobbing down the river above the falls, stuck together in that open barrel. As they approach the edge and tipping point, those big questions about Cass's bucket list and Lois's desire to end it all get a real fast review. Lindsay-Abaire pulls a couple of lightning plot twists out of that careering barrel. The audience sits almost within arm's reach of the struggling adventurers, and it's very much to the talent of the actors that we do feel real empathy with characters who've been demonstrating the perils both of wild optimism and the pessimism of dour despair.
Wonder of the World could have easily been dedicated to women as the wonders of the world. Lindsay-Abaire makes every male character hapless, clueless, or inept, while each of the women is wonderfully focused and sure. Shannon Embrey distills that message every time she steps onstage for a tour comique -- whether rebuking diners in those three absurdly themed restaurants or in her semi-apotheosis as the therapist clown.
I was away from Austin and got to this production only for the closing weekend. It was my first time back into the sacred enclosed space of live narrative theatre since the very uncomic pandemic shuttered venues all across the United States. The Trinity Street Playhouse on the fourth floor of First Baptist downtown is an intimate black box in which audience members all wore masks, whether vaccinated or not. The set was rudimentary, not more than a couple of flats with doorways and a slightly raised platform at the rear center, but that hardly mattered; we were all ready to go somewhere different, somewhere imaginary, somewhere that characters were vivid and earnest and their dilemmas were ridiculous.
October 07 - October 24, 2021
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
October 8 – 24, 2021. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 pm. Sundays 3 pm.
Trinity Street Playhouse, 4th floor, 901 Trinity Street. Austin, TX 78701.
Limited seating with all COVID vaccination and testing safety requirements to be followed.
General Seating $15. Center Reserved $20-25. Group and student discounts.