Harris Yulin and James Van Der Beek in Rain Dance(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Harris Yulin and James Van Der Beek in Rain Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
There are no end of plays in which audiences wait for a figurative bomb to drop while watching an increasingly anxious protagonist. Now there's a play in which an audience can wait for a figurative bomb to drop while watching an increasingly anxious protagonist wait for an actual bomb to drop.

The drama in question is Lanford Wilson's Rain Dance, which begins in a Los Alamos, New Mexico cantina at just about sunset on July 15, 1945. For those with a tenuous grasp of facts surrounding the Manhattan Project, the very specific place and day means that Wilson's newest work unfolds in the hours remaining before the first atomic bomb was tested at -- to be precise -- 5:29:45am on July 16. The date is also a few short weeks before atomic bombs, having proved their effectiveness and efficiency to the pertinent decision-makers, were ejected from bomb bays over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The man who can't sit still in the makeshift room is Hank (James Van Der Beek), a Bronx-born theoretical scientist on the lookout for the car assigned to transport him to Alamagordo, New Mexico and the historic blast. As he paces round the large wooden spool that serves as a table at the center of Christine Jones's two-by-four set, his only companion initially is Tony (Randolph Mantooth), a Native American who hardly moves a muscle as he scans the newspaper. In time, graphic artist Irene (Suzanne Regan) arrives to chat with the two men while expecting her husband and Hank's project colleague, Peter, to show up. When Peter (Harris Yulin), considerably older than his wife, shambles through the screen door, he joins a discussion that gets into the subject of the impending explosion, into pointed opinions on fellow theorists Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, and into speculation on the possible long-range effects of the impending test.

Not much is revealed, really, about the participants. Hank, having left New York behind for a part of the country where he feels he can do much more significant communing with nature, imputes more wisdom to Native Americans than Tony is eager to accept. Irene gives background information on when, why, and how she and Peter left Germany for the United States and, ultimately, the fast-approaching Trinity Test. Though Irene is visibly in love with Peter, there are more than casual hints that she's also attracted to Tony, who eventually gets up from his chair to demonstrate the Indian dance he did in the 1920s in, believe it or not, a Paris girlie show. A thunderstorm approaches: It's highly symbolic, needless to say, but this storm is actually documented. As the weather thickens along with what there is of the plot, Hank's fear for the nearby terrain he's come to love and his mounting anger at potential future uses of the bomb lead him to act out.

But only just -- and therein lies the beauty of Wilson's script, which might be considered a companion piece to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen for its focus on theoretical physicists and their worries about nuclear fission implications. (N.B.: Charlotte Jones's just-opened Humble Boy also involves an edgy theoretical physicist.) Wilson has dared to write a play in which very little seems to happen as four people pass the hours before something calamitous occurs, about which they can do very little. The enormity of what they're up against is only hinted at when Peter reports, "This morning, Fermi says very quietly to me, 'In the event this gadget does not go off with all these fission products we're creating, which would be the most effective poisoning agent? If we were to introduce it into the enemy's water supply?' I suppose so our experiments shouldn't be a complete waste. This is the way moral men are thinking now." (How topical does that sound?!)

Wilson's figures are people who sense that their best hope is to remove themselves, emotionally and geographically, as far away from where they're currently situated as possible. It's as if master playwright Wilson has taken T.S. Eliot's frighteningly prescient phrase about the world ending not with a bang but a whimper and decided to work a change on it. This is the way civilization as we'd known it is about to end, Wilson is saying -- not with a bang but with a mournful sigh before the bang.

Suzanne Regan and Randolph Mantoothin Rain Dance(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Suzanne Regan and Randolph Mantooth
in Rain Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In a palpably pessimistic mood about how the world has gone awry since 1945, Wilson wants to devastate through understatement as Eliot does in "The Hollow Men," written in 1925. That's both the boldness of Rain Dance and its potential drawback. The author runs the risk that audiences wanting more bang for their buck will lose patience with the undramatic verbal give-and-take in which Hank, Tony, Suzanne, and Peter indulge.

For quite some time during the 90-minute play, the quartet seems involved in a gabfest with nothing more than benign undercurrents. Only slowly -- perhaps too slowly for some theatergoers -- does Wilson show his hand. It's easy to imagine theatergoers leaving the play muttering, "They talked a lot but nothing happened." The reality is, Wilson's characters are aware that one of the most crucial moments in the history of the planet is about to happen: the moment when man wrested from nature the ability to cause apocalyptic destruction.

As overseen by director Guy Sanville, all elements in Rain Dance combine to make Wilson's play an elegant elegy. As the piece begins, Hank doesn't know whether to dance to the music he hears wafting from elsewhere or whether simply to gaze out a window; lighting designer James Vermeulen creates a premonitory flaming red sunset for this sequence. Throughout, sound designer Kurt Kellenberger unleashes thunderclaps and the shush-shush of accompanying downpours. The characters' clothes are meant to be unprepossessing -- two of these people are scientists, after all -- and costume designer Daryl A. Stone hits the mark. Jones, having rounded up a bulky old Coke dispenser and an equally old electric fan with which to dress her set, may be pulling a grimly deliberate joke in placing that wooden spool center stage: Lying on one side, as it does, its lines suggest a mushroom cloud.

Asked to deal strictly in nuance, Sanville's actors comply with precision and integrity. James Van Der Beek, having concluded his sixth and last season of Dawson's Creek, may be in the mood to solidify his legitimate stage credentials -- and that's just what he does here. Handsome as they come in a Guess model way, he beautifully plays a man whose looks mean nothing to him but whose gaze into the future is eroding his spirit; and his Bronx accent, probably overseen by voice coach Kate Wilson, is pretty much consistent. Suzanne Regan and Harris Yulin, playing Germans eager to shuck their past but wary of their perilous present, also strike all the appropriate muted chords. Randolph Mantooth, whether standing stock still or recreating the ritual dance he did in his Josephine Baker days, undercuts whatever familiar quality might have attached to this depiction of a stoic Native American.

Though calculatedly quiet, Lanford Wilson's Rain Dance sounds loud alarms.