It starts with Cass (Devon Campailla), who leaves her husband Kip upon discovering a terrible and bizarre secret in his sweater drawer. Armed with a list of 200+ things that she has always wanted to do -- learn Swedish, find a sidekick, have sex with a stranger, etc. -- the sweet-natured Cass boards a bus to Niagara Falls. On board, she meets Lois (Molly Binder), a wry alcoholic who has been left by her husband and plans to kill herself by riding a barrel over the falls. In Niagara, the two share a hotel room and Lois is soon distracted from her suicidal mission by Cass's exploits; chief among these is a fling with Captain Mike (Christopher Guthrie), a widower who pilots the Maid of the Mist tour boat. Throw in a husband-and-wife team of amateur private investigators (Jim Stump and Adrianne Underhill), the desperate and needy Kip (Jeff Groh), three very peculiar theme-restaurant waitresses, and a psychologist who moonlights as a clown (all played by Amanda Monyhan). The result is one oddball story.
Under the direction of Christine DeFrancesco, the Know Theatre cast enthusiastically tackles the play and its questions -- left largely unanswered -- about what constitutes marital bliss. The fact that Lindsay-Abaire likes to joke about things that are not funny (violent death, emotional anguish, and all kinds of human dysfunction) makes his edgy brand of humor challenging but, for the most part, the seven-member company gets it. Binder, Guthrie, Stump, and Monyhan deserve special credit for their wonderful performances, though Groh unfortunately overacts and Underhill underacts.
Campailla does a commendable job in the difficult role of Cass, whose perkiness and blithe self-involvement can make her irritating and even unsympathetic. Sometimes, apparently in an effort to cope with Lindsay-Abaire's peculiar one-liners and non sequiturs, the actress plays the role too far over the top; still, Campailla creates an effective character who comes to discover that life's most significant experiences are too ambiguous to be put on (or checked off of) a list.
Perhaps it's that ambiguity which makes Wonder of the World seem less accomplished than Lindsay-Abaire's other plays. Fuddy Meers, which has already made the regional theater rounds, and Kimberly Akimbo are quirky, poignant, and complicated but everything in them eventually seems to make sense -- that is, to the extent that anything makes sense in this playwright's world. But here, Lindsay-Abaire tantalizes us with the idea that certain key events in the characters' pasts -- e.g., the death of Cass's mother and the strange peanut butter-related demise of Captain Mike's wife -- will have greater bearing on the present circumstances than they do. Some connections are made, but no conclusions. This may be the point, yet it leaves the viewer feeling unsatisfied, as does a lengthy scene near the play's end that has the clown-psychologist conducting a couples therapy session in the style of The Newlywed Game. This gimmicky scene ends with an unexpected twist that appears to have been hatched strictly to accommodate the equally unexpected but much more appropriate finale that Lindsay-Abaire devised for his heroine's Niagara Falls adventure.
Whatever its flaws, the Know Theatre production is a must-see for anyone who wants to hear one of the most unique voices in contemporary playwriting and wants to support one of Cincy's most ambitious theater troupes. Smart, funny, and twisted, Wonder of the World is refreshingly original.
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