Theater Review - Over a barrel

Wonder takes silly vacation to Niagara Falls

Making Niagara Falls the setting of his comedy Wonder of the World was an ingenious stroke on the part of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. The famed waterfall manages to be exotic and familiar at the same time, a powerful image and perennial honeymoon destination, yet not a place people think about very often. Wonder of the World not only evokes the lore of the waterfall, it takes snapshots of its quirky tourist community.

The falls literally provide the backdrop to Horizon Theatre’s production. Instead of having a conventional curtain at the back of the stage, set designer John Thigpen provides sheets and strips of cellophane colored like foaming water, arranged to imitate the falls’ natural formation. Niagara Falls has such a powerful presence in the play that Lindsay-Abaire’s silly characters can’t stand up to it. Watching Wonder of the World is like visiting friends and realizing that their vacation slides are more interesting than their conversation.

Kip Harris (Chris Ensweiler) is shocked when he returns home from work early one day and finds his wife Cass (Courtney Patterson) packing a suitcase to leave him forever. Kip believed they enjoyed a happy marriage, which consisted of Yahtzee games and trips to the food co-op. Cass is clearly put off by a mysterious revelation Kip divulged the night before (I won’t give away Kip’s secret, which turns out to be both more disgusting and more innocent than anything you can imagine). But she refuses to talk about it.

When we take up with Cass riding a bus, we wonder why Kip’s so distraught at losing her, as she turns out to be a hyperactive chatterbox. “Aren’t I irrational!” she preens. Freed from her marriage, she’s working her way through a list of things she’s always dreamed of doing, which range from wearing overalls to witnessing an execution. She intrudes on the privacy of her seatmate Lois (Vicki Ellis Gray), a drunk with her own marital problems, who plans to kill herself by going over Niagara Falls in a pickle barrel.

Cass appoints Lois her sidekick, although she vacillates between helping her commit suicide and teaching her to appreciate life. They take in the attractions at Niagara, which for Cass includes Capt. Mike (Andrew Davis), the pilot of a tour boat, whom she seduces. Meanwhile, the women are under surveillance by a strange elderly couple, Lederhosen-wearing Karla (Janet Wells) and attention-deficit Glen (Neil Alan).

Karla and Glen are a broadly drawn duo along the lines of such husband-and-wife comedy teams as George and Gracie or Stiller and Meara. Frequently the playwright proves entirely too fond of dusty old bits of shtick, like the use of false beards as disguises, or misunderstood dialogue at the foot of roaring waterfall, where “They’re nuts!” is misheard as “They’re sluts?” At one point we even find Cass and Lois riding the barrel in a rushing body of water, like one of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance’s wacky adventures.

Wonder of the World never proves as clever as you hope, although director Jeff Adler makes the most of its fast pace and zany goings-on, especially in the second act. One sequence has simultaneous chats at three different theme restaurants — one medieval, one Native-American, one goth/vampire — with Denitra Isler making quick changes as the server at all three. The play’s climax even finds room for a clown, a handgun and “The Newlywed Game.”

But for all the noise they make, the characters rarely engage us as human beings. Gray’s Lois may be a loud drunk, but she’s not a larger-than-life comic personality — she just has the volume up too high. Gray’s smaller moments tend to be the keepers, like when she does a Yogi Bear impression that, amusingly, sounds nothing like the cartoon character. At least Ensweiler has a lot of fun with Kip, blubbering miserably while watching a wedding video, or making ineffectual attempts to be “butch.”

Patterson has high spirits and bright, bouncy eyes, but her role is so flighty and self-absorbed she cuts off the audience’s sympathies. Capt. Mike proves the only truly likable character in the play, thanks to Davis’ deftness at making the role upright but not priggish.

Capt. Mike’s past demonstrates the play’s attitude about destiny. His wife died by being accidentally brained by an oversized peanut butter jar, yet when he tried to kill himself in grief, he miraculously survived leaping into the waterfall. Although the play explores questions of fate, coincidences and second chances, it doesn’t feel like it’s about anything. Wonder of the World feels as meaningful as Forrest Gump’s floating feather and its unsatisfying assertion that life is both random and preordained.

Like-minded playwrights Christopher Durang and Nicky Silver also like to play cruel pranks on their characters, although Lindsay-Abaire has a slightly gentler touch. Wonder of the World proves that he has plenty of comic ideas, but without more fully fleshed-out roles, his plays are just drops in the ocean.