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A CurtainUp Review
A Small Tragedy

. . . Life is nothing if not predictable. If you know how to read all the clues and take the time to put them together. I was never one to do my homework.

Nothing that is vast comes to the life of mortals without ruin
Lee Pace and Ana Reeder (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The adjective to describe Craig Lucas' new play within a play is correct. It's not a symphonic modern Greek tragedy; in fact, at first it seems to merely use the play within -- Sophocles' Oedipus Rex -- to jumpstart a witty comedy about well-educated but still more foolish than wise men and women.

Make no mistake about it, however, Mr. Lucas is using the familiar play within a play genre to deal with symphony-sized issues and the small tragedies of his chamber piece's sextet smartly and provocatively parallel the great Greek tragedy that brings them together. While Nathaniel, the pompous and often wrong-headed director and adaptor urges the actors to agree "not going to try to make the fucking play relevant as if it isn't already," Lucas smartly ignores this advice -- and does so with enough humor to make Small Tragedy as entertaining as it is thought provoking. His script cleverly has life in the 21st Century imitating the art of the 5th, and links his thespians' personal issues to national and international patterns of denial and blame placing.

The play, expertly staged by Mark Wing-Davey, starts straightforwardly enough with auditions held in a Cambridge rehearsal studio. We learn that this small production is a comeback from failed, high flying Hollywood careers for the co-directors, Nathaniel (Rob Campbell) and Paola (Mary Shultz). The auditioning actors also unpack some of their personal baggage. From this setup it's on to rehearsals, alcohol soaked cast get-togethers, the opening night in Boston -- and a second act in New York that serves as a what happened after the curtain came down epilogue that contains the seeds for another full-length play.

Given the generous doses of rehearsal scenes and the discussions about how to interpret Nathaniel's wishy-washy adaptation, audience members unfamiliar with the Oedipus myth should have no problem connecting the dots between Oedipus' actions and the revelations its staging brings. Still, a summary in the Playbill wouldn't be amiss and I'm therefore including one in a box following the production notes below.

Any difficulties in following what's going on are most likely to come from the simultaneous conversations that permeate the first act. The thing is NOT to try to catch everything that's said but to concentrate on the primary dialogue. This is a matter of learning to focus on what's important to the moment, and accepting the overlapping interchanges as background noise and to trust Mr. Lucas to bring every member of the ensemble front and center. Once you get into this cross-cutting groove it's easy to see that the playwright is probably using this technique to make a point about how all the chatter in the news often distracts and blinds us to what's important.

All six actors adeptly let the overlapping conversations bump up against each other and bring their characters to fully realized life. Bob Campbell manages to make us like Nathaniel even as we laugh at his more artsy than artful directorial pronouncement and the right wing political comments that befit his full name, Nathaniel Townsende III. Mary Schultz taps into the pain beneath the shrewish glibness of Nathaniel's partner Paola, whose health problems (she's HIV positive) he blames for their abrupt downward career spiral. As the troubled directors, separately and together, guide the actors through their roles, the complexities of the off stage relationships merge with those of the ancient drama.

Daniel Eric Gold and Rosemarie De Witt find a lot of humor in their respective roles: he as a naive young man named Christmas who plays the seer Teiresias and falls madly in love with Nathaniel; she as Fanny an AA graduate and, in the Oedipus story, half of a two-woman chorus (Schultz being the other half). Fanny is woefully uninformed about world events (the subject of Bosnia prompts her to ask " Isn't there, like, a sort of a war there?") but she has a built-in radar for detecting phonies -- unlike her friend Jen, the appealing and sensitive Ana Reeder, who seems to have an affinity for men who will cause her grief.

Fanny and Jen react quite differently to Hakija (Lee Pace), the young Bosnian economics student who turns out to be the group's one gifted actor. A story he tells Fanny about himself, and freely admits to being manufactured, leaves her permanently uneasy about who he really is (a theme also explored in the upcoming Broadway revival of Lucas' Reckless). Jen, on the other hand, is captivated by Hakija's charisma as she plays Jocasta to his Oedipus. Her ultimate decision about dealing with a truth that once revealed can never be completely swept out of sight can provides much food for post curtain contemplation.

Like Jen, you will be unable to resist Lee Pace. Looking and even sounding a bit like a young Gregory Peck, he gives a powerhouse performance as the tragedy haunted Bosnian for whom his newfound loves-- the theater and Jen-- mean a new and better future. He is a brutally passionate Oedipus and a sexy, perplexingly unknowable Hajika. His dual characterizations more than deliver on the promise of his impressive debut in The Credeaux Canvas (review)

For all the assets, there are flaws, most having to do with overdoing or underdoing things. HIV is enough of a tragedy for Paola and Nathaniel's background; why throw in alcoholism? The play within Small Tragedy is allowed too much stage time. On the other hand, the final revelation with its attendant moral dilemma feels almost rushed. But these are minor blemishes in light of the overall script and the production, which in addition to the strong cast, boasts first rate production values.

It doesn't matter whether, like Jen in her opening remarks, you're left wondering "whose tragedy this is, was" or if it is "simply a very sad thing." Where else can you find laughs, heart-tug, plus fodder for lively post-mortems? With all due respect to director Nathaniel, Craig Lucas has made an ancient classic as timely as tomorow's's headlines.

The Dying Gaul Lucas in a more strictly somber mood
Second Thoughts on Gaul's second run
This Thing Of Darkness collaboration by Lucas and David Schulner

Written by Craig Lucas
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Cast: Cast: Rob Campbell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Daniel Eric Gold, Lee Pace, Ana Reeder and Mary Shultz.
Set Design: Douglas Stein
Costume Design: Marina Draghici,
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Design: John Gromada
Running time: 2 and 1/2 hours includes one intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street (212) 279-4200
2/17/04 to 3/28/04; opening 3/11/04.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM.
Tickets: $55. Student Rush Tickets available for $15 (cash only, day of performance, subject to availability).
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/06/04 press preview

Brush Up On Your Sophocles
There are a number a versions of the myth, which differ in important details but they all began with the e story as told by Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannus (King Oedipus), performed in Athens for the first time in about 425 BC.

The First Oracle:Laius, ruler of Thebes is told in an oracle that his son will kill him. His wife Jocasta agrees to have the baby's feet are nailed together and have a shepherd-slave leave the child at the mercy of the wolves and wilde beasts on Mt Cithaero. The slave, takes pity on the baby boy and, instead of leaving it to die, gives him to a shepherd from Corinth who in turn presents the baby to Polybus, the childless King of Corinth. The King brings him up as his own naming him "Oedipus" or Swollen Foot because of his deformity.

The Second Oracle: Some eighteen years later someone at a royal gathering calls the young Oedipus a bastard. Unable to ignore the insult he goes to Delphi. Instead of obtaining confirmation of his heritage at the oracle of Apollo he is told that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. On the chance that this prediction could come true inadvertently, Oedipus heads in the opposite direction, towards Thebes. As he descends from Parnassus he meets an old man driving a wagon with a retinue of slaves at a place where three roads meet. The man orders him off the road and when Oedipus refuses to do so the man strikes out at him with his crook. The enraged Oedipus kills the man, as well as all the guards, and continues to Thebes to fulfill his awful destiny.

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