Ana Reeder and Lee Pace in Small Tragedy(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ana Reeder and Lee Pace in Small Tragedy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Noises Off meets Death and the Maiden in Craig Lucas's hilarious yet deeply disturbing comic drama Small Tragedy. This latest production from Playwrights Horizons, smartly directed by Mark Wing-Davey, demonstrates the playwright's willingness to take risks, combine genres, and subvert an audience's expectations.

The play centers on a semi-professional production of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. Nathaniel (Rob Campbell) is the director and adapter of this new version of the classic Greek tragedy and has assembled a cast that includes Hakija (Lee Pace), a talented but mysterious man from Bosnia, as Oedipus; Jen (Ana Reeder), a troubled divorcee just now returning to acting, as Oedipus's mother/wife Jocasta; and Nate's girlfriend Paola (Mary Schultz), who is purportedly the show's co-director and adapter and also plays half of the two-woman chorus. The other half is played by Fanny (Rosemarie DeWitt), Jen's alcoholic roommate. Nate himself takes on the role of Creon and Christmas (Daniel Eric Gold) rounds out the cast as a number of supporting characters, including Teiresias and the Messenger.

Most of the first act and a good part of the second is a loving parody of theater rehearsals. "Parody" may actually be too strong a word; the play provoked what seemed to be the warm laughter of recognition from a large part of the audience. While the entire ensemble is terrific, Gold deserves special mention for embodying the kind of earnest yet not that talented young acting student whom I've seen time and time again in rehearsal rooms, particularly in the college setting.

Naturally, the majority of the characters in Lucas's play are keeping secrets, carrying on clandestine and not so clandestine love affairs (or would like to be doing so), and talking behind each other's backs. But, while all of the players are recognizable types, Lucas endows each with substance; moments of serious drama, political debate, and unexpected insight are interspersed with the comedy.

Douglas Stein's versatile set nicely establishes a number of different locations for the stage action while Jennifer Tipton's lighting ranges from the practical to the expressionistic. A scene in the second act that involves a gradual shift of color and light on an empty stage proves to be one of the most riveting moments of the evening, partly thanks to Tipton's finesse.

A cast party following the performance of Oedipus is one of the few unsatisfying scenes in Small Tragedy. Here, Lucas seems to resort to contrived theatrical devices and clichés to move his story along. For example, a party game forces the various characters to answer questions in a truthful manner, and this inevitably leads to explosive confrontations. While the game resolves -- or at least brings to a head -- a number of the play's plot lines, it seems a bit too pat.

Rosemarie DeWitt and and Mary Shultz in Small Tragedy(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Rosemarie DeWitt and and Mary Shultz in Small Tragedy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Following the shake-ups at the cast party, the action leaps forward several years and there is a dramatic shift in tone. All of the actors are adept at making this leap, and their performances in this more serious section of the play seem natural outgrowths of the characterizations they've already established. However, there is a bit of an imbalance in the structure of Small Tragedy in that the more provocative, theatrically meatier segment is far shorter than the largely comical bulk of the work. The last, dangling plot thread that was not resolved during the cast party comes to the fore here. Exactly what happens should not be revealed in a review, but one of the issues that emerges is the question of how war criminals should be punished.

The closing moments of the play seek to imagine an alternative to the cathartic denouements of ancient Greek dramas -- such as Oedipus -- in which the tragic hero receives a punishment that is both awful and somehow fitting, inspiring pity and fear in the audience. No such catharsis exists in our contemporary world, Lucas seems to say. Instead, the characters may be more inclined to take the route of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, in which full disclosure by the perpetrators of atrocities can lead not necessarily to forgiveness but to healing and the possibility for continued existence in the wake of trauma. The playwright avoids an overly sentimental conclusion while simultaneously exploiting expectations of melodrama. Not everyone will be satisfied with the play's ending, but it's guaranteed to provoke some thoughtful discussions.