Paul Niebanck, Sue Cremin, and Clayton Apgar
in Such Things Only Happen in Books
(© Suzi Sadler)
Paul Niebanck, Sue Cremin, and Clayton Apgar
in Such Things Only Happen in Books
(© Suzi Sadler)
Thornton Wilder is chiefly known for his full-length plays -- most notably, Our Town -- but he also wrote scores of one-acts and playlets, several of which are beautifully realized. Unfortunately, the five brief works being presented by the Keen Company at Theatre Row under the collective title Such Things Only Happen in Books are not among his best, as they suffer from shallow writing. Worse still, they're performed here awkwardly by a cast that often seems bewildered by the material.

Two of the dramatist's early playlets, "The Servant's Name Was Malchus" and "The Angel That Troubled the Waters" -- both inspired by stories from The New Testament -- form bookends for the evening. "The Angel That Troubled the Waters" is a particular misfire. The piece could be a very moving story about an angel (Sue Cremin) rejecting a plea from a physician (Paul Niebanck) for healing on the grounds that his suffering makes him a better caregiver. Wilder was clearly influenced by Expressionistic drama here; but director Carl Forsman seems to be trying to present it in a more realistic vein, with none of the stylized movement and visual effects that might bring clarity to the work.

"Cement Hands" and "In Shakespeare and the Bible" -- both directed by Jonathan Silverstein -- follow roughly similar plots: two young fiancées (played in both pieces by Pepper Binkley, who provides some sparkle to the evening, and Clayton Apgar) are thwarted by relatives who serve as sort of anti-matchmakers, an uncle in the first (Kevin Hogan) and an aunt in the second (Kathleen Butler). However, neither of these works are distinguished pieces of writing. Indeed, "Cement Hands" is little more than an uncomplicated tale about a rich, young man who has a morbid fear of petty cash. "In Shakespeare and the Bible" has a more conventionally dramatic crisis involving the damaging secrets of the elderly aunt and the young man engaged to her niece. But the characters are so wanly written that the conflict never creates any passion or heat.

The piece that lends its name to the production, "Such Things Only Happen in Books," concerns a novelist (Niebanck) on an oblivious quest for plots while all manner of fiction-worthy scandals take place under his nose. Wilder's writing is undoubtedly convoluted -- but, with more three-dimensional portrayals than we see here (under Forsman's direction), there could be the potential for unspoken layers of tension.

The production attempts to frame the pieces together with an attractively unadorned wooden backdrop from set designer Sandra Goldmark, and with brief, increasingly sophisticated musical interludes of the old Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts." But, in the end, what's needed to make these playlets soar is something less simple: richer source material and more fleshed-out performances.