Am I wearing the right shirt? Is the bottle of wine I brought too cheap? Should I go in for the kiss at the end of the night? These are common questions running through the mind of your average participant in a blind date. The world of Craig Wright’s barely-post-9/11 drama, Recent Tragic Events—currently being brought to life under the direction of Jason Tamborini for Prologue Theatre—adds a couple more: Are coincidences even possible? Does free will exist? Will the world ever be the same? Luckily, these hyper-consciously existential ponderings are grounded and made human scale by the performances of some terrific actors in this second installment of Prologue’s second season.
Originally premiering in September 2003—a mere two years after the events on which it’s based took place—Recent Tragic Events is a 9/11 narrative that’s set on 9/12. It’s the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crashing of a hijacked plane in Pennsylvania, and in Minneapolis, Waverly (Kari Ginsburg) and Andrew (Jacob Yeh) have a blind date planned. The two decide to stick to their unfortunately timed plans even though an entire nation is in shock and Waverly is frantically waiting to hear whether her twin sister, Wendy, who lives in Manhattan, is okay.
Into this already fraught milieu saunters Waverly neighbor, Ron (Jonathan Feuer), a free-spirited musician who prattles on and on about the flow of energy while ignoring all semblance of personal space and polite boundaries. Eventually joining them is Nancy (Molly Shayna Cohen), Ron’s silent, underwear-eschewing overnight guest. This unlikely foursome then must navigate trying to lead a “normal” evening despite the ceaseless background noise of the 24-hour news coverage and the thrum of Waverly’s ever-increasing panic.
Recent Tragic Events closes February 16, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Ginsburg and Feuer are the undeniable standouts of Prologue’s holistically excellent production. Ginsburg, though running on and off the stage and spending half of her time tied to a cordless phone, manages to hold the center of the story while swinging between wildly manic and deeply vulnerable. Her delivery of drag queen-esque quips like “”It was a really bad day for Kevin Bacon,” when discussing how it seems like everyone knew someone in New York on 9/11 and heart-shattering lines like “Why did you even tell me this?” are equally memorable and affecting.
Feuer similarly embraces the inherent contradictions of Ron. He’s able to capture the complexity of someone who tosses off expressions like “Boy fuck, she eats!” when referring to Nancy one moment and debates the philosophical nature of determinism while serving as a true rock for Waverly the next. Yeh embodies Andrew’s nervous energy and exasperation at a deeply awkward evening admirably, but is given fewer opportunities by Wright to truly shine. Cohen, similarly, does admirable work in the second act of a nature I won’t spoil.
Speaking of spoilers, Wright has included a number of surprising, fourth-wall breaking moments of metatheatricality into his script, some of which invite the audience to think deeper about the underlying questions inherent in the narrative, while many others merely feel deeply self-indulgent. As a playwright, some of these moments make the entire piece feel like a screed against the note that the meeting of two characters in a play can feel too “convenient” (or that may just be this playwright projecting). It’s a credit to Tamborini’s deft direction and his cast’s engrossing performances that these elements aren’t permitted to overtake or overshadow the deeply human drama occurring between them (be sure to look for subtler but carefully thought-out moments, like the cards Waverly deals at the top of act two).
Any 9/11 narrative at this point is an exercise in memory—I guarantee there wasn’t a single member of the audience old enough to remember it who wasn’t thinking about where they were that day during the play. A major element of memory is, of course, sound. When I saw Kenny Neal’s name on the program, I knew we were going to get a detailed, highly curated soundscape to plant us firmly in 2001, and, based on the pre-show music choices alone, I wasn’t disappointed.
Even more impressive is the constant stream of news coverage that runs under the entire play, never at a level to detract from the main action on stage, but also never totally tuned out either—much like it was in those days in 2001. Another inspired choice was the decision to make a tone sound (that is part of the fourth-wall breaking I’m intentionally not mentioning) mirror the “fasten seatbelt” ding on an airplane. This sonic wash, along with Alison Samantha Johnson’s costumes and Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s scenic design, did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of planting us firmly in the early aughts.
Ben Gibbard, the front man for the band Death Cab for Cutie—a group that would have fit into Neal’s playlist very well —once said in an interview, “At this point in my life, I find myself mildly obsessed with alternate paths I could’ve taken. I don’t think about this with a sense of regret, but with a sense of wonder… for every one of those scenarios where I think things happen for a reason, I find myself regretting decisions that I never really had.”
Recent Tragic Events is a prime example of how major life and world-changing events throw these questions of fate, self-determination, and regret into even sharper relief. I’ll never be able to compare Prologue Theatre’s production to the original 2003 production, when the events in question were much more recent, but I must assume that the passing of time has only given audiences even more to think about and discuss on their way home from the theater.
Recent Tragic Events by Craig Wright. Directed by Jason Tamborini. Featuring: Molly Shayna Cohen, Jonathan Feuer, Kari Ginsburg, Jacob Yeh, and Natalie Boland. Lighting design: Paul Callahan. Costume design: Alison Samantha Johnson. Sound design: Kenny Neal. Scenic design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Technical direction: Chris Foote. Production stage manager: Kelly McNesby. Rehearsal stage manager: Casey Parker. Produced by Prologue Theatre. Reviewed by John Bavoso.