NEW YORK — It's all very well to restage classic dramas, but theater depends on renewing itself every generation by cultivating new voices. Two new plays by writers of interest opened last month in New York: "Wonder of the World" by David Lindsay-Abaire ("Fuddy Meers") and "Everett Beekin" by Richard Greenberg ("Three Days of Rain"). Each playwright looks at contemporary society from a different viewpoint.
The Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Wonder of the World is a comedy centered on secrets. The playwright's message, if it can be discerned through the hilarious exaggerations of the characters, seems to be that no one escapes being accountable.
Lindsay-Abaire writes about a fairy-tale marriage in which Cass lives like Rapunzel, protected by her husband, Kip. When she discovers his dark side, she leaves him, hopping on a bus to Niagara Falls. The disparate group of people she meets speak the way she does, like comic-strip characters with their thoughts pasted over their heads.
The play careens through predicaments that are as black as they are funny. The superb cast is led by Sarah Jessica Parker (TV's "Sex and the City") as the lovable cuckoo-bride who tells the truth, no matter how tough it is on the others. By the end, she has demolished Kip (Alan Tudyk) as alternately terrifying and pathetic, and led the five other actors along an antic path. Comedienne-extraordinaire Amy Sedaris plays six characters, including a marriage counselor dressed as Bozo, the clown. Director Christopher Ashley keeps the pace fast, aided by David Gallo's clever setting of compartments that move around the stage like boxcars switching their order on a train.
Lindsay-Abaire does not shy away from strong or distasteful images, nor are the plot lines always under control. The evening is not for theatrical sissies, but it's worth watching these sparkling actors take on a provocative new work.
Everett Beekin, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, is about family ties and the way each generation asserts itself, despite the difficulties of avoiding the past. Act One is set in a 1940s Lower East Side New York apartment, where Ma still lives with her youngest daughter, Miri. Two other daughters, Sophie and Anna, have married, leaving Ma, and her immigrant superstitions and rituals, for new lives in the suburbs. Their dialogue is no less realistic than the details of the apartment, designed by Christopher Barreca.
Act Two moves to 1990s California, suggested by a bare stage backed by an expanse of western sky. Anna's daughter, Celia, has arrived from New York for the wedding of her sister Nell's daughter to Everett Beekin III. The audience knows that the Beekin name reverberates back to the family on the Lower East Side, even if Anna's daughters do not. The two Everett Beekins and the relationship between the sisters are the themes that connect the acts through time and space.
The same fine actors portray dual roles, and are directed (by Evan Yionoulis) to emphasize their similarities. Bebe Neuwirth, the hard-driving Anna of Act I, plays Anna's daughter Nell as a discontented West Coast divorcée. Robin Bartlett transforms from the clear-eyed Sophie to the cynical Celia, the voice of reason in this tarnished Eden. Kevin Isola is poignant as Miri's suitor and the young Everett, the lost golden boy.
Greenberg's wishful thinking about a period when family was all-important is unmistakably evident. He contrasts the ever-changing geography of the American experience against the pull of one's heritage, making the wanderlust that has pushed the nation west a metaphor for the mental distance children travel from home. But he seems to be warning that this freedom comes at a price.