Unhappiness Abounds In The Pavilion at 4th Wall

Jennifer Dean and Luis Galindo in The Pavilion
Jennifer Dean and Luis Galindo in The Pavilion Photo by Gabriella Nissen Photo
Beware the marketing of a play. Or perhaps beware that your emotional reaction to a play may be miles apart from the experience advertised.

The Pavilion (By Craig Wright, now onstage at 4th Wall Theatre Company) takes us to small town Minnesota for a 20th-anniversary high-school reunion. More specifically, the play focuses on the reunion of that year’s cutest couple, Peter (Luis Galindo) and Kari (Jenifer Dean), now very much estranged.

But Peter is hoping to change that. Yes, he callously dumped Kari years ago, leaving her pregnant and heartbroken, but now he’s returned to win her back. Never mind that she's married, albeit unhappily. Peter can’t live without her, he says. His life is a mess and she’s the only answer. And perhaps Kari still feels that the best shot at love was the one she didn’t get with Peter.

According to the 4th Wall website, The Pavilion is “A hilarious and heartwarming romance…(that) …invites us to explore time, love, and the universal power of memory.”

I’ll give them the funny part. The Pavilion has many cute to clever funny moments. But Heartwarming? Romance?

No sir. This is one of the bleakest plays I can remember seeing. All the bleaker because I’m not sure the playwright, 4th Wall or half the audience realize how utterly grim this story is. No one is happy, everyone is awful, there's no redemption and time marches on, but our characters are stuck, never doing the work it takes to grow, become better, find happiness, or deserve a second chance.

Even the setting of their reunion is incapable of healthy evolution. The town’s historic gathering place, The Pavilion (a minimalist set by Kevin Holden), is set to be burnt to the ground for redevelopment at midnight. If that isn’t a metaphor for how we’d rather destroy than do the difficult job of cultivation, I don’t know what is.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this narrative. It’s dark, messy and unfortunately realistic. But I don’t think this is the play that was presented or watched. Instead, it’s written and staged as a will they/won’t they romantic comedy of sorts with a good heaping spoonful of metaphysical distraction.

The third character in the play is Narrator (Philip Lehl) who acts as our pseudo-scientific/philosophical guide in the show. It’s him we meet in the opening few minutes of the play as he SparkNotes us through the beginning of the universe from the first drop of rain to primordial goo to the evolution of man, the creation of societies, histories and the eventual birth of Peter himself… on a quest to right the unforgivable wrong he bestowed on his high school sweetheart.
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Philip Lehl in The Pavilion
Photo by Gabriella Nissen Photo
If it weren’t for Lehl’s ease and charm, this eon’s worth of connections would seem pretentious and obscuring. But as usual, Lehl’s talent can suck an audience in and make us thankful he’s the one guiding us where the playwright says we must go.

Far more successful than the Narrator’s interjections, which serve to push the couple along time-wise in the reunion evening or impart some big M meaning to our place in the universe, are the many other characters Lehl plays.

And here’s where the comedy only slightly veiling the desolation marches in.

Playing a multitude of male and female reunion attendees, Lehl masterfully code switches back and forth as old friends talk to Peter and Kari, unloading their troubles while wondering if the golden couple might back together.

In these characters, Wright gives us some genuine laughs. A minister equates his loss of passion for his wife with the loss of his hair – a natural degeneration. A cuckquean wife lies in wait for her husband to cheat again so she can refuse to forgive this time and gain the upper hand. A police chief gets stoned with the man who is sleeping with his wife – a better alternative than killing him as was his initial goal.

As mentioned — Everyone is unhappy. Everyone is struggling. No one knows what to do to make things better.

Even as I write this, it feels icky saying I laughed at any of it. To be fair, the play was written in 2000 when these were relatively uncomplicated things to find funny. Played with verve by Lehl they are humorous still, even though we know better.

But here’s where the bleak bleeds in. Amusing as it was, listening to characters complain about their ridiculous situations, admit to their misbehaviors, and bury feelings in substance abuse, it eventually becomes one big depression pile of ruined, wasted, unwilling-to-change lives.

And at the top of this pile is Peter and Kari.

Unfortunately, Wright has written Peter so soullessly selfish, with little true repent, that even the monumental talent of Galindo can’t make us warm to him. If you've ever wondered, who couldn't love a character Galindo plays, even the terribly flawed ones, this is it.

But it almost doesn't matter because all our attention is paid to Dean's Kari – a powerhouse performance of repressed hurt and loss. It's with Kari that Wright pushes back (somewhat) on the romantic fantasy, saving the play from cliché purgatory. This is Dean's show to steal and she makes off with the entire production.

After all this, it was unsettling to hear audience members shuffle out claiming the play was “beautiful”, “funny” and “lovely.” Hey, far be it from me to harsh anyone’s theater buzz. Take what you need and keep coming back.

I’ll take what spoke the loudest to me. The Pavilion is a tragedy dressed in clown car clothing if the car was on the way to a metaphysical conference. Laugh? Sure. Find some meaning? Some. Hope that we have the tools now not to end up in this mire of doom? Well, that’s for other playwrights to ponder.

The Pavilion continues through October 7 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Studio 101. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit $25-$60. Pay-What-You-Will: Monday, October 2
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman