- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

While many people are still trying to get a grip, artists are exploring the possibilities and repercussions of September 11, 2001. You don't know how they have the gumption, the perspective, the handle on pain and grief, but there they are, hashing it out for all to see.
One artist performing this act of bravery is playwright Craig Wright, whose play, "Recent Tragic Events," is being nimbly staged at Woolly Mammoth by director Michael John Garces. The premise is like a tasteless joke: A young Minneapolis woman named Waverly (Holly Twyford) waits for a blind date to show up on Sept. 12, 2001.
I can hear you cringing already. You might be pondering: what a bad idea for a play, what was the playwright thinking to have two characters going out on a date when America as we knew it was changed the day before? But stay with me here. Mr. Wright is a playwright of humor and humility, and the play is both romantic and rending.
You think New Year's Eve is a crummy night for a first date try Sept. 12th. Talk about being in denial. Waverly is nowhere near together when Andrew (Eric Sutton) shows up, a sweet but vaguely unformed young man who runs an airport bookstore. She runs from room to room, repeatedly punching numbers into her cell phone, all the while chirping such can-do gal phrases as "excellent" and "it's all good." Meanwhile, the TV set provides a sort of background music, an uneasy listening station full of news reports, commentary, and recaps.
Waverly tries to make herself calm down by tossing off such witty remarks as, "There's a new show on TV, 'Attack on America.' It is really long," but it becomes clear that something is deeply wrong. It turns out that Waverly's twin sister, Wendy, a New York fashion student, hasn't checked in since the Twin Towers fell and she may or may not have been in the World Trade Center the day before.
Miss Twyford is so good at playing smart women who are coping with unhinging experiences that you can easily forget she is portraying a character. But she strikes that perfect balance between hysteria and trying to be a good hostess and possibly a candidate for further romance. Mr. Sutton has his moments as Andrew, but he tends in the second act, especially, to overdo the loser aspects of his personality, until you begin to wonder why someone as fine as Waverly hasn't kicked him to the curb by now.
First dates can be awkward, but to put the not-knowing on top of it is nearly unbearable. Thankfully, there is abundant comic relief to be had, mainly in the personage of Ron (Michael Ray Escamilla), a musician friend from down the hall who blows in like a cloud of ganja and starts drumming on all the furniture and spouting his own personal brand of way-out cat patois. In between his riffs and scats on an infinite variety of topics, Ron slurps down all the wine Andrew brought.
Ron is a wonderful character as well as a comic convention, since he is both a clown and a philosopher albeit one quite possibly who believes in better living through chemistry. He is happily ensconced in his own neo-hippie world, but Mr. Escamilla plays him with such heart and stoned goodness that you can't help but like him.
Ron's foil is his underpants-free friend Nancy (Dori Legg), who plops down in her Santana T-shirt and eats an amazing amount of pizza all without saying a word but conveying that she is a strong, vibrant woman by her no-nonsense stance and not-suffering-fools-gladly facial expressions.
While Ron and Nancy are the patchouli-scented heart of the play, the most profound moments come from, of all things, a hand puppet. Through a screwy set of circumstances, the prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates shows up for pizza and conversation. Miss Legg is the puppeteer, and once you get used to a bespectacled, felt-covered hand downing Coronas and playing a drinking game, you find yourself bizarrely moved by Miss Oates' breathtaking, eloquent speech that muses on where the human dread goes after it rains down from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the plane in Pennsylvania. "It becomes part of us," she concludes.
Comedy and poignancy aside, Mr. Wright's play is not ideal. There is this frankly icky convention where a stage manager (Nehal Joshi) comes out and pounds the point home that life is random and things could change forever in an instant. When the stage manager returns at the beginning and the end of Act Two, you have to stifle a groan.
"Recent Tragic Events" also does not so much end but lightly trails away. There is atmospheric music, sound effects and long pauses where the audience does nothing but stare at Ron sitting on the sofa. It can be seen as a flaw, but consider this: How can you end a play about September 11th? It isn't as though everything was all sewn up and dandy a week later, or even a year later.
Leaving the play open-ended is a relief, a grace note of sorts. Because we are nowhere near ready to make September 11th just another day.

***
WHAT: "Recent Tragic Events" by Craig Wright
WHERE:
Woolly Mammoth at the Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW
WHEN:
Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Sept. 29
TICKETS:
$21-$34
PHONE: (202) 393-3939; 800-494-8497


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