Sunday, January 10, 2016

REVIEW: BITTERSWEET COMEDIC DRAMA AFFECTING @ ALLIANCE REP

By Ruth Ross

As the old adage says, "Time heals everything," but the notion gets knocked on its pointy, platitudinous head in Alliance Rep's production of The Pavilion, now onstage at Mondo in Summit where it runs through January 24.

Despite the ostensible setting of a 20th high school reunion, wherein the Cutest Senior Couple of 1995 confronts each other and a disturbing past event, Time is actually the main character in Craig Wright’s quirky, bittersweet—albeit a bit long and talky—comedic drama. Shepherded by a Narrator  through the evening—he announces the time of each successive event—the script features lots of philosophical talk about the meaning of Time, the role of forgiveness and the possibility for redemption. Such talk sometimes interferes with the story of Peter and Kari, the once power couple whose individual lives have not gone so well since Kari's announcement of her pregnancy 20 years before sent Peter heading for the hills, her to an abortion and "rescue" marriage to Hans, the town's golf pro, and him to a career as a psychologist, unable to form lasting relationships as he pines for his high school sweetheart.

Beginning with a brief trip through time from the Big Bang to the present—presented with sober enthusiasm by the Brad Howell (Narrator) at the play's outset and reinforced by a similar pronouncement at the beginning of the second act—Time's passage is signaled by whooshing sounds as the Narrator (right, as the reunion’s emcee) morphs into a variety of former classmates, male and female, whom Peter and Kari encounter throughout the evening and often get in the way of their story. But anyone who has ever attended a high school reunion knows that these types exist everywhere, not just in Pine City, Minnesota, and their insertion adds to our appreciation of the playwright's ability to evoke a universal experience.

Michael Driscoll has directed this trip through reunion time very well, keeping the action moving despite the long philosophical interludes that could make an audience antsy. Erik Gaden is a winning Peter, obviously still in love with Kari, professing regret for his previous bad behavior and earnestly seeking reconciliation with his beloved, if not total forgiveness. Sarah Kuhns is terrific as Kari, still angry at being abandoned while pregnant and, in a way, blaming Peter's decampment for her loveless marriage and a feeling that her life is an uncomfortable and ever-present 17 degrees off kilter from normality. Kuhn gives a luminous performance, appearing to glow throughout the evening.

The initial awkward meeting of the two is especially delicious, as is Peter's singing of a sweet love song he wrote with the last surviving member of The Mustangs, the school's popular musical group. What makes it especially touching is that we know the lyrics are directed to Kari. Gaden's beautiful performance appeared to touch the audience, for several people wiped tears from their eyes at its conclusion.

In the second act, the two actors meet again, this time out on the town's pavilion, which is about to be torn down to make way for a country music venue. There, as Peter and Kari talk about the past, he reveals himself to not have moved on beyond high school while she, having to deal with the fallout of an unwed pregnancy and subsequent abortion, has become an adult. The contrast is striking, and while the past cannot be rekindled, by the end, some sort of detente appears to be reached.

Gordon Wiener's sparse set manages to evoke a century-old river pavilion, while Ed Pearson's light design is atmospheric, as well as suggestive of a summer sky arching above. Brad Howell's sound design takes us through the four-hour reunion, complete with appropriate music, chatter and that whooshing time warp.

Alliance Rep is known for producing interesting, often quirky, plays that don't involve large casts, elaborate costumes or complicated scenery, and The Pavilion doesn't disappoint in these respects. Despite its being well acted, the play's script is, however, a bit talky and overwritten. But Craig Wright (a writer of the television shows Lost and Six Feet Under) and the folks at Alliance Rep offer an interesting "take" on time and its role in our lives and our existence. That the tiny theater downstairs in Mondo brings us close to the actors and the action engenders the feeling that we are part of it all. And for drama to be cathartic, that's a good thing.

The Pavilion will be performed on the lower level of Mondo, 426 Springfield Ave., Summit, through January 24, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday, January 24, at 7 PM. For information and tickets, call 908-472-1502 or visit http://alliancerepertory.ticketleap.com/pavilion/  online.