Craig Wright’s The Pavilion is a modern classic because it wades through a starlit sentimentality on its way to a clear-eyed lesson. As a tale about a man trying to reunite with his lost love at a 20-year high school reunion, staged simply with just three actors and a wooden railing, you’ll expect a soppy and romantic ending. But, as the omnipresent narrator says at the beginning, this is a play “about time,” and mere bouquets of flowers and promises of being a changed man are not enough to rectify the mistakes of the past.
Matt Bassett is Peter, the one trying to correct for his teenage wrongs in order to regain the life he believes he ought to have lived. The object of his affection is Helen R. Murray’s Kari, just as much as stuck in an underwhelming now as Peter is, but not nearly as sanguine about running away and starting over. What keeps their story from dropping into sad-sack drama is, first of all, the snappy wit of Wright’s dialogue, and, even more so, the perspective and energy of the Narrator.
The Narrator is an ideal role for the protean Nora Achrati. In addition to providing waves of context in the form of monologues about the birth of the universe and the place of human hopes and dreams within it, she also steps into the characters of everyone else at Peter and Kari’s reunion, men and women alike. These characters, from this small Minnesota town’s chief of police to an old friend of Kari’s caught in a love triangle, are enjoyably cartoony, less real people than glimpses of the highs and lows of the human experience. This Narrator role is typically played by a man, and watching Achrati slip convincingly into male roles makes me think it would be rather annoying to see it with the standard configuration.
Murray never sentimentalizes Kari, nor does she play her as defined by her victimhood; she’s simply a relatably conflicted person who has learned to live with the options available to her, likeable for not trying to be likeable. This is Murray’s final season as Artistic Director of The Hub Theatre, and The Pavilion was the first play the company produced when she co-founded it a decade ago. That history adds a meta layer to this already very meta play and makes it a fitting final onstage outing for Murray before she decamps for the Aurora Fox Center in Colorado. (She will be offstage as the director for this season’s last play, Secrets, a world premiere about an African-American singer denied a hotel room who is put up by Albert Einstein.)
Bassett does not entirely match the depth of Murray’s yearning or quite fully convey the sense of desperation you expect from someone who has staked his entire happiness on one reunion. But that is a small complaint – the comparison of a slightly-imperfect A-grade performance to two A++ performances. He does make a grand and equal foil to Murray’s wit, and it is clear both why she would still be tempted by his charisma twenty years later and why a full reconciliation with him would be impossible. (Peter is the surviving member of the graduating class of 98’s rock band, so Bassett gets the chance to charm with his guitar skills and lovely voice.)
closes April 22, 2018
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Director Kelsey Mesa keeps things so brisk and focused on the details of character that it is hard to notice a directorial hand at all. The set she co-designed with Murray consists of one corner of mahogany railing with attached bench, ably suggesting the titular lakeside locale. This pavilion is not only host to the high school reunion (and the inevitable cheesily nostalgic 90s hits on its dance floor, courtesy sound designer Evan Cook), but, as a town landmark set to be burned and replaced with something more modern at precisely midnight, serves as a constant metaphor for the inevitable passage of time. Pavilions of various kinds turn up in the Narrator’s speeches, and you can be forgiven not having a precise idea what each symbolic usage really means; you will come away with the simple and evergreen message that Time Marches On and We Can’t Change The Past. Even if that is a seemingly clichéd idea when spelled out like that, when delivered via this sparkling production and with Wright’s honest observations, it takes on new force. It thus manages the trick of being worthy a visit from both the naïve theatregoer who needs to lose their rose-colored glasses, and the most cynical theatregoer in need of a reminder that happy endings aren’t required to feel good about the past.
The Pavilion by Craig Wright . Directed by Kelsey Mesa . Featuring Nora Achrati, Matt Bassett, Helen R. Murray . Lighting Design: Jonathan D. Alexander . Costume Design: Jen Gillette . Scenic Design: Kelsey Mesa, Helen R. Murray . Sound Design: Evan Cook . Stage Manager: Paulina Campbell . Produced by The Hub Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.