Roll the Bones

During the hushed opening moments of Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events, Stages Repertory Theatre is enveloped in eerie darkness. A "stage manager" walks out and does his spiel about cell phones and season tickets, and then he asks a volunteer from the audience to toss a coin that will decide the "course of the play." Heads means one set of variables, tails another. Then the house goes to black, and among the audience, there's giddy, whispered speculation about the possibilities of "two scripts!"

Under the whispers, an unsettling though familiar sound begins to gain force, finally blowing up into a calamitous roar. The effect is unexpected and even shocking. Everyone in the audience knows that Wright's play has something to do with September 11. But still, the scream of a jet engine heading straight toward the front row creates one of those theatrical shifts that makes one sit up and get ready for something important. It isn't long before we realize that Wright's new play, which is premiering concurrently in Houston and at New York City's Playwright's Horizon, is going to say something entirely new about September 11, something smart, wise and heartbreakingly tender -- even if it does wag its schoolmarmish finger at the audience every so often.

Lights snap up on Wednesday, September 12, where the catastrophic events of the day are played again and again from a television in the middle of Waverly Wilson's living room. This is her story, and she is off stage, in the process of dolling herself up for a blind date, despite the fact that the world has gone askew. And despite the fact that someone close to her may or may not have been working at the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks.

Out in the hallway, Andrew (Brian Byrnes), the man who might bring Waverly (Elena Coates) happiness or who might crush her heart, is knocking on the door. The world is full of frightening and exquisite possibilities for Waverly and Andrew.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. At the beginning, all we know is that Waverly is surprisingly nervous about what's happened in New York City, especially given the fact that she lives in Minneapolis, so far away from the horror. We also know that Andrew is awfully "wishy-washy" about the blind date thing. He contemplates ditching her before the date begins just because she is pretty and reads Trollope like he does.

Waverly manages to convince Andrew to stay, despite the fact that her neighbor Ron (Jason Douglas) and his girlfriend Nancy (Shelley Calene-Black) show up to put more pins and needles under the date. Ron is a musician who likes hanging around Waverly's apartment yakking about things like "synergy" and "cosmic shit."

Slowly, the simple but profound question the playwright poses by bringing pretty Waverly and bookish Andrew together on September 12 unfolds: Is it chance or is it destiny that creates the geometry of love and grief?

Much later in the night, after many beers and tequila shots, Ron will reason that we have no free will and that "all moments are connected." Strangely enough, it's a Joyce Carol Oates sock puppet commanded by Calene-Black, who also plays Nancy, that gives the opposite point of view. Oates argues the very postmodern idea that the moments that make up our lives are connected only because we "choose to see them that way."

And Wright seems to land on Oates's side, assigning and reassigning meaning to the play's events and toying with the audience throughout its duration. The coin toss turns out to be a kind of trick, and the stage manager himself (Todd Molesky) becomes one of the play's characters, who slides on stage at unexpected moments to make big-with-a-capital-B statements about life and "all its baffling complexity" and to give the audience a little direction.

This is all pretty heady stuff that tips dangerously close to preaching at times, such as when Oates chides Andrew for asking questions that "can lead to some very dangerous ethical conclusions." But Wright manages to finesse his way out of the intellectual clouds and back to Waverly and Andrew, who are in the middle of an emotional crisis having everything to do with 9/11.

Director Rob Bundy, whose work has been especially exciting lately, keeps the energy so high that even a long conversation about the meaning of life fairly crackles with electricity. He owes a lot to Douglas and Calene-Black, who carry the weight of the conversation with such intellectual vitality that it never goes dry.

Wright's approach to the events of September 11 is stealthy and smart. He sidesteps the maudlin while embracing the spiritual, acknowledging that the horrifying events of that day gave us an "almost pornographic awareness that we live in a world almost completely beyond our control." But in spite of that dread-filled day, says Wright, we remain "perfectly and absolutely free."

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Lee Williams