As the strains of The Beatles “Across The Universe” fade, a young man appears on a bare black stage.

“This is the way the universe begins,” he tells us.  “A raindrop (that isn’t really a raindrop) drops, like a word, ‘rain’ drops, into a pool (that isn’t really a pool, more like a pool of listening minds), and tiny waves circle out in an elegant decelerating procession, -cession, -cession. Then, after a time, the pool of listening minds grows still once more.”

And as he says the word “raindrop,” a world globe descends from above and into his waiting hands.

A poetic beginning to a most unusual play, written by a playwright whose works (a number of which have had prestigious West Coast or Los Angeles premieres over the past two years) have made his name a major theatrical draw across the country.

The play is The Pavilion, and the playwright is Craig Wright, author of Orange Flower Water, Recent Tragic Events, Grace, and Lady, and a writer who reinvents himself with every new work.

Here Wright is in Thornton Wilder mode, casting a look at the lives of small town Americans with the same blend of poetry and realism and theatricality which has made Wilder’s Our Town an American classic.

Like Our Town, The Pavilion has a narrator who oversees and comments upon the events which unfold on stage.  Like Our Town, The Pavilion centers on a pair of star-crossed lovers.  Unlike Our Town, the narrator portrays all of the several dozen characters who surround Peter and Kari, high school lovers who meet again for the first time in a decade at their 10-year-high school reunion.

The Los Angeles premiere of The Pavilion, and a superb one it is, is being staged by the Lyric Theatre, one of L.A.’s most noteworthy new companies and one of its most youthful. Thus, the 37-year-olds of Wright’s original script are 27 here, and this high school reunion their 10-year rather than their 20-year one.  Time being relative, the change does not affect the power of Wright’s tale, that of a young man who abandoned his pregnant high school sweetheart just after graduation only to find his life empty and meaningless years later.

Peter (Tim Hamelen) has come back to The Pavilion, an old dance hall in Pine City, Minnesota, in an attempt to start over again with Kari (Kristin Chiles). Over the past 10 years, a string of failed relationships have only made Peter realize how much he lost when he chose college over Kari and moved away.

Kari, on the other hand, stayed in Pine City and (some time after aborting Peter’s child) married Hans, a professional golfer.  Her life, she tells a classmate at the reunion, is going just fine thank you. She’s still gainfully employed in the safety deposit department of the local bank and as to her marriage, well, the only bad thing about it is that “I really hate golf!”  Or at least that’s what she claims.

“You look great,” Peter tells Kari when he sees her for the first time in 10 years.  “You look tired,” she spits back, an angry glare in her eyes.  And later, echoing the “universe” leitmotif established in the first scene, she tells him, “Because of you the universe is ruined … forever!” Still later, “For you and me to start over, the whole universe would have to star over again.

If Wright’s play were simply a soap opera about whether Peter manages to convince Kari to leave Hans and start over again with him, it would not have become such a regional theater favorite (over 40 regional productions since 2000).

Much of the pleasure in watching The Pavilion is in savoring its sheer theatricality. This is most definitely a play and not a movie or novel brought to the stage. Wright juggles time and space and gender here in the most inventive of ways, and allows each production’s director (Obren Milanovic here) and design team to create a world of their own making.

In the play’s most striking departure from Thornton Wilder, a cast of 55 (that’s how many actors were in the original Broadway production of Our Town!) has been whittled down to three, with a couple dozen or more characters all brought to life by the one actor (or actress) playing the narrator.  

Here, the narrator is portrayed by Chris Smith, with the all American good looks and athletic physique of a star quarterback. That Smith seems more leading man than character actor makes his myriad transformations all the more remarkable, especially when he dons high heels and a slinky evening dress on more than one occasion.


Here are but a few of the roles that Smith brings to life, each clearly distinguished (not merely by costume and wig) but by voice and body language:

Pudge, a hefty guy who works a 1-900 suicide line at 99 cents a minute and once made $120 on a single call; tall blonde Angie, pregnant with God only knows whose baby; a flower-child space cadet who casually informs Peter that “Kari really hates your guts”; Smoke, a shaggy haired African American minister and philosopher; Carla, an angry woman with the world’s worst mullet who tells Kari to “Tough it out” and “Stay angry!”; Cookie, the (male) class president who’s gained a lot of weight from smoking pot; Angie’s cop husband out for revenge on his cheating wife; and many more, highlighted by an Act 2 tour de force monolog in which (this time without changing from his basic black narrator’s garb), Smith morphs into another few dozen characters in the space of one remarkable piece of writing/acting. Memorable work from an actor whose work I can’t wait to see again.

Hamelen, as Peter, is physically unrecognizable as the bearded actor who brilliantly embodied the seething hatred and resentment of Eamon in the Lyric’s most recent production, The Blowin Of Baile Gall.  This time Hamelen is in hero/antihero mode, and despite his character’s past mistakes, quickly wins the audience’s (or at least my) sympathy.  Hamelen does beautifully subtle, multilayered work here.  That he has an absolutely great speaking voice, husky, with a hint of a whisper, is icing on the cake.

Chiles has, in some ways, the toughest role of all, since Kari is angry from the moment we first meet her and doesn’t even begin to let down her guard until well into the second act.  She is after all a woman who has come to believe that “bearable is the best we can hope for” in life. I would have liked to see more “notes” in her work in the first act, but as she softens and begins to open up to Peter after intermission, Chiles reveals a vulnerability that is touching indeed.

Director Milanovic’s creative touches are everywhere, no more noteworthy than in the opening sequence in which the narrator gives us a brief history of the universe from its creation to the present day, as countless rapidly changing images are projected on an upstage screen while downstage Chiles and Hamelen perform Peter Berube’s graceful and imaginative choreographed moves to further illustrate the narrator’s talk. A breathtakingly inventive beginning to a fascinating two hours of theater.

Dan O’Brien’s lighting design has the poetic quality of Wright’s script, a highlight being Peter and Kari’s first meeting at the reunion, lit in a way that recalls Tony and Maria’s first sight of each other in West Side Story.  Steve Sanchez’s costumes are equally memorable, especially the dozens which he has created for Smith’s characters with “quick changeability” in mind. Jesse Laks sound design features a medley of 1998 hits, including Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us,” and the Spice Girls “Wannabe,” just what one would hear at a 10-year reunion in 2008.

Sharper minds than mine can comment on the deeper meanings of Wright’s play.  For myself, watching The Pavilion was the sheer pleasure of the magic of live theater at its best, where a trio of actors on a mostly bare black stage can bring to life a complete (and fully populated) world through the combined imaginations of a director, a group of designers, and an audience willing to join them on the journey. I loved making the trip with them.

Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 21, 2008

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