The Class of '82 has gathered for its 20-year high school reunion in Pine City, Minn., and along with booze and canapes, they're serving up heaping helpings of regret. One of the celebrants, a Twin Cities psychologist named Peter, comes to the party bearing a bouquet of flowers for the lost love of his life, a woman he had cruelly abandoned long ago.
The former girlfriend, Kari, is now middle-aged and living in a cage of self-denial. Stuck in a marriage to a man she loathes, and in a suffocating bank job that is its own kind of prison -- she is supervisor of the safe-deposit boxes -- Kari looks into the future and sees not an open road but a clogged drain. In her eyes, it's all because of the behavior of this man who suddenly wants her back.
The fallout from a single act of cowardice, the ways in which a ripple from the past can wash like a powerful wave over everything else in a life, is the provocative essence of "The Pavilion," Craig Wright's seriocomic drama at Round House Theatre. It's another lyrical piece of writing by the author of "Recent Tragic Events," a play that in a premiere earlier this season by Woolly Mammoth Theatre incisively explored the repercussions of Sept. 11.
Yet unlike "Recent Tragic Events," "The Pavilion" has to pull out all the artificial stops in the effort to impart a lesson that you probably did not need a playwright to teach you. It's the sort of play that exhibits an almost desperate need to transcend its subject matter, to reach for that overprized theatrical trophy, significance.
"In human history, every little thing makes a difference," the Narrator, played by Marty Lodge, informs us in one of the dozens of intrusive asides sprinkled throughout "The Pavilion." The piece itself is framed as a kind of sermon: "This is the way the universe begins," are the first words out of the mouth of Lodge, who serves as our folksy, omniscient interpreter, similar to the function performed by the Stage Manager in "Our Town" (Thornton Wilder is an obvious influence here). Repeatedly we're given unnecessary cues that the problems of Peter (Aaron Shields) and Kari (Jane Beard) do indeed amount to more than a hill of beans.
Wright appears to be convinced, though, that we cannot draw any meaning from the commonplace affairs of "The Pavilion" unless he weighs in on a cosmic plane: What's less involving, he seems to be saying, than someone else's reunion? As a result, the story of Peter and Kari gets short shrift; it feels underdeveloped. There's little to their connection other than the memory of the episode that scarred them both. And Peter's youthful actions were so damaging, so devastating to Kari's chances for happiness, that the placidity of their conversations is improbable. A bouquet of flowers, after ruining her life? (Kari had an abortion after Peter ran away to college, without an explanation.) What on earth could this jerk be thinking? And he's a psychologist? As much as for Kari, you have to feel for his patients.
Round House's production, directed by Jerry Whiddon, is merely serviceable. The play, which Wright wrote several years ago, has received productions at small regional theaters across the country; no doubt one of the chief attractions is the role of the Narrator. The part requires not only a lot of philosophizing, but also shape-shifting. The Narrator plays everyone else at the reunion, from Kari's gossipy girlfriend to the druggie classmate who has become the town's pharmaceutically sophisticated police chief.
Lodge is an amiable escort for the evening, but he's not a natural changeling, and his impersonations lack the sort of character delineation that could turn each transformation into a magic trick. As a man and woman acknowledging all the sour notes that have drowned out the hopeful music of their youth, Shields and Beard convincingly meet the demands of their sad, small-town roles; designer Rosemary Pardee's overly frilly tea-party dress for Kari adds to the sense of a woman who looks more festive than she feels.
Still, there's a chilliness to this production, a homily where its heart should be. The truth is, though, no matter what the temperature, it's pretty easy to resist a play that is so adamant about telling you what's on its mind.
The Pavilion, by Craig Wright. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Sets and lighting, Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; sound design, Martin Desjardins. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through March 2 at Round House Theatre, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.