At the beginning of the play, an actress (Kalimi A. Baxter) portraying the stage manager has a volunteer from the Playwrights Horizons audience flip a coin. She then tells us that random tones will be heard throughout the play, signaling the actors to play one of two alternate scenes depending on whether the tossed coin came up heads or tails. We hear that tone often throughout the first act. There is an intellectual consistency, if not integrity, in this choice because it drives home the playwright's point that events can change in an instant and we'll never know what might have otherwise happened. Yet this is an irritating way to make that point because it constantly takes the audience out of the play. Wright's intention, at least in part, is to remind us that we're watching a play and that all plays have a pre-determined course of action. Unfortunately, he makes the same point over and over again throughout the evening, in a variety of irritating ways.
We tend to like theater that is self-aware; A.R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall was meat and potatoes for us. But that play was clever, its playfulness sly and carefully modulated. Recent Tragic Events, on the other hand, doesn't wink at theatrical conventions -- it pokes them in the eye. In one instance, the playwright even delivers a rabbit punch. Not wanting to give away one of the show's most important twists, all we can say here is that a writer should play fair and should never pull a theatrical bait-and-switch on his audience.
It would also help, even in a play with some inspired scenes of absurdist comedy, if the characters were as grounded in reality as possible; the comedy would be that much funnier and the ideas better served if we could identify with the people on stage. Seriously, do you know a woman who would invite a blind date to pick her up at her apartment and open the door for him wearing nothing but a bathrobe? Would she then invite him in and then totally ignore him while she gets dressed, makes phone calls, and checks her e-mail? Heather Graham plays this unlikely ditz, named Waverly, and it's impossible to tell if she can act because the part doesn't allow her much range. She's more effective in the rare moments she reacts like a real human being than when she's supposed to be quirky and funny.
Unlike 9/11 plays such as The Guys and the current Portraits, Recent Tragic Events doesn't go for the emotional jugular. This is a story that steps back and takes a more intellectual approach to the tragic occurrences of that day. Its distance is stressed by geography: The play is set in a Minneapolis apartment, smartly designed by Adam Stockhausen. There is verisimilitude in the way that the characters drift in and out of watching television news as Kirk Bookman's lighting delicately shades the changing moods of the night. And there is honesty in the characters' sense of fear, intensified by the drama surrounding the unknown fate of Waverly's sister in New York. Too bad Wright didn't trust his material enough to avoid an excess of gimmickry. It's also a shame that the director, Michael John Garcés, stresses the playwright's arch constructs with some obvious directorial choices.
Recent Tragic Events is sometimes funny, but that doesn't make it a comedy. And it does treat some serious issues with intelligence, but that doesn't make it important. While this is the most ambitious theater piece on its subject so far, the great 9/11 play has yet to be written.