Jennifer Mudge & Brian d'Arcy James in The Pavilion
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Jennifer Mudge & Brian d'Arcy James in The Pavilion
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Craig Wright's The Pavilion could have been a wonderful play; it offers a poignant examination of the damage that human beings can do to each other and of the potential for forgiveness and redemption. The problem with the piece resides in the use of an omniscient narrator, a device that feels both pretentious and unnecessary.

That thankless role is played by Stephen Bogardus, who often comes across as if he's doing the voice-over for an episode of the PBS series Nova. Given that the first words of the play are "This is the way the universe begins," his interpretation is perhaps understandable, though still unjustified. Blame must also be laid at the feet of Lucie Tiberghien, who has directed these sequences at an excruciatingly slow pace.

However, once the focus shifts to the primary characters Peter (Brian d'Arcy James) and Kari (Jennifer Mudge), the play becomes quite enthralling. The action takes place during Peter and Kari's 20th high school reunion, held at a century-old dance hall called The Pavilion, which is slated to be destroyed after the evening's festivities to make way for new businesses. Peter and Kari used to date in high school; then she got pregnant and he abandoned her. She had an abortion and married another man while he went to college and became a psychologist. He's come to realize what a horrible mistake he made as a scared young teenager and he wants to make it up to Kari -- perhaps even win her back. But this is much easier said than done.

Both James and Mudge deliver subtle, emotionally grounded performances. Mudge, in particular, gets under the skin of her character; the rawness of her emotions is sometimes difficult to watch. Wright's dialogue captures the conflicting desires of the characters and their often awkward, ineffectual attempts to communicate with each other. In addition to his duties as narrator, Bogardus plays all of the other people with whom Peter and Kari interact at the reunion. He's quite amusing in many of these roles but occupies them too briefly to make them more than sketchy outlines or outright caricatures.

Takeshi Kata's spare set is serviceable without conveying a strong sense of location; Matt Richards' atmospheric lighting is more effective in this respect. Christophe Tiberghien composed the incidental music that underscores much of the show, and he serves as the production's pianist. The play includes one song -- with music by Peter Lawton and lyrics by Craig Wright -- performed by James as Peter, who used to be part of a band called The Mustangs while in high school. Titled "Down in the Ruined World," its folk rock rhythms and haunting lyrics carry a powerful emotional charge.

The Pavilion is one in a series of plays by Wright called "The Pine City Trilogy," all set in the fictional small town of Pine City, Minnesota. Another play in the series, Orange Flower Water, received an excellent production in New York earlier this year by the Edge Theater Company. Like that work, The Pavilion takes an unflinching look at responsibility and consequences; there are no easy solutions for the characters, and a happy ending seems impossible. When Peter and Kari look at their lives and the unhappiness that they both endure from day to day, she refuses to believe in his dream that things could be better if they just got back together. "It's life!" she tells him. "Bearable's the best we can hope for."