Sarah Jessica Parkerin Wonder of the World(Photo: Jean-Marie Guyaux)
Sarah Jessica Parker
in Wonder of the World
(Photo: Jean-Marie Guyaux)
It's often a mistake to predict a distinguished career for a playwright after one or two accomplished plays. Nevertheless, it is tempting to go out on a limb with David Lindsay-Abaire. As he marches confidently into new and delightful dramaturgical territory, Lindsay-Abaire is turning himself into one of those writers from whom better and better works can be reasonable awaited. But make no mistake: There's much to recommend in what he has already put on view.

This playwright's strength is in his ability to choose tired themes and make them not only fresh and funny but also surprisingly moving. Two years ago, with Fuddy Meers, he found a hilarious approach to the threadbare subject of family dysfunction; now, with Wonder of the World, he has taken the topics of marriage and a woman's search for identity and run them up into a lively farrago. His modus operandi is to create a cartoon world in which characters that seem at first to be strictly cartoons slowly take on additional dimensions. As they do, they find themselves in increasingly unlikely predicaments and often say screamingly funny things about the hot water into which they've stepped.

In Wonder of the World, Lindsay-Abaire's focal stick figure is Cass (Sarah Jessica Parker), who decides that her marriage to Kip (Alan Tudyk) has not developed into the perfect picture she'd expected. So, armed with a yard-long list of goals that she hopes to reach, Cass leaves for Niagara Falls--which locale, of course, symbolizes marital promise. On the way to her new life, she meets Lois Coleman (Kristine Nielsen), an alcoholic intent on barreling over the falls to spite her estranged husband. Temporarily distracting Lois from her proposed demise, Cass also befriends Captain Mike (Kevin Chamberlin), who pilots the famous Maid of the Mist tour boat and more than reciprocates her friendship. While she and the Captain are becoming better acquainted, Cass is clumsily pursued by Karla (Marylouise Burke) and Glen (Bill Raymond), a pair of married detectives whom Kip has hired to find her.

The wonder of Wonder of the World is that, though none of what transpires should make the slightest particle of sense, it all clicks into place like tumblers in a lock. That includes a late scene in which Kip and Cass, Lois and Captain Mike, and Karla and Glen play an impromptu round of The Newlywed Game presided over by Janie (Amy Sedaris), a couples counselor who conducts this group therapy session in a clown costume. The wacky play also includes a series of coincidences that sometimes work out in the characters' favor and sometimes don't. For example: Lois, who had lost hubby Ted's gift of a wristwatch on their Niagara Falls honeymoon, manages to retrieve it during the course of the play. There's also a mysterious death by oversized peanut butter jar and another demise that is less mysterious but more unsettling...not to mention what happens when both Lois and Cass jump into Cass's big barrel.

When the final curtain closes on Wonder of the World, the marriages examined by Lindsay-Abaire haven't been fully explained, nor is Cass's search for herself completed. But the inconclusive nature of the play is actually its author's real message. In lining up the happy and unhappy accidents in Wonder of the World, he is saying just that: Life is a series of happy and unhappy accidents. With a serious smile on his face, he is insisting that, when you are sent down the river of life in a barrel, there's no telling where you'll end up. Helping him put his comedic philosophy out there are a slew of talented people working under director Christopher Ashley, who has gotten the cast members--stalwarts all--to play at top form.

Most prominent is Sarah Jessica Parker, whose assignment is a 180-degree turn from her Sex and the City role of the disillusioned but ever-hopeful sophisticate Carrie Bradshaw. Here, she portrays a puzzled naïf slowly losing faith in herself. Wearing a perm that owes something to Shirley Temple, Parker turns the blithely self-involved Cass into a winning personage. The actress is probably receiving daily bouquets from Lindsay-Abaire for making a character that could have been irreparably annoying so utterly charming instead.

Nielsen's suicidal Lois has a tic that forces her to swig from a flask even when it's empty; she is big, loud, damaged, and likeable. Marylouise Burke, who's establishing herself as a significant Lindsay-Abaire player, has the kind of voice and manner that renders whatever she does amusing. Bill Raymond, as her equally daft spouse, also draws laughs from fecklessness. Alan Tudyk's baffled Kip is a stitch throughout but never funnier than when he motors from stage right to stage left on his way to Cass, crying all the while.

Kevin Chamberlin's Captain Mike makes sweetness a sign of fortitude. Scratch the surface of this rotund seaman and you'll find that he is similar to the thoughtful, understanding characters played by Chamberlin in both Dirty Blonde and Seussical; Captain Mike is Horton out of the elephant suit, but every bit as appealing. The final member of the merry cast is Amy Sedaris, who plays six roles in six wigs, all of them indelible. During one sequence, she has to appear and reappear as waitresses at three different theme restaurants and she serves tickled ribs in each incarnation. Her no-nonsense Janie the clown therapist also brightens the proceedings.

Boasting sets that have been designed and lit with ingenuity by David Gallo and Ken Billington (respectively), Wonder of the World is already as bright as a greeting card. Gallo sets forth a number of environs with his special brand of fun--note especially what he does with clouds from first to last and how, against a blue sky, those clouds reflect Lindsay-Abaire's worldview. The many costumes are David C. Woolard's, and Mark Bennett is responsible for the original music and the sound design, a good part of which conjures those rushing Niagara waters. In sum: This much jolly talent doesn't come along every day.