A terrible topicality has overtaken the Hub Theatre’s production of “Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave.” The characters in David Yee’s wise and kaleidoscopic but only intermittently absorbing play have witnessed, or been affected by, the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But a more recent cataclysmic weather event — Typhoon Haiyan — ravaged the Philippines just a week before “Carried Away” opened at the Hub’s home in Fairfax. So the references to destruction and loss in this U.S. premiere, directed by Helen Pafumi, have the timely ring of the morning news.
It’s all the more affecting when you take your seat in the John Swayze Theatre to the sound of drumming waves and static-splintered newscast fragments. A shattered pane of glass hangs over the stage, and suspended objects — glass shards, a tricycle, a clothes-stuffed suitcase in the process of bursting open — evoke a ruinous blast of water. The floor, too, is littered with clothes, toppled chairs and other detritus hinting at lives battered by a deadly storm. (Robbie Hayes devised the scenic design and Matthew Nielson the sound.)
The broken pane becomes the frame for a series of tonally contrasting vignettes that view the tsunami and its aftermath — and suffering in general — from a range of perspectives. Her face lit up with intellectual excitement, a scientist (Nora Achrati) explains how variables related to planetary mass and rotation can generate major weather events. Throwing light on religious interpretations of catastrophe, a Catholic priest (Ryan Sellers) and a structural engineer (Andrew Ferlo) argue about why the tsunami spared a basilica on the Indian coast. A pair of Toronto radio shock jocks (Ed Christian and Ferlo) underscore the political and moral aspects of disaster and disaster relief when they tastelessly spoof a “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”-style charity song.
As vignette gives way to vignette, worldview to worldview and personality to personality, the play musters a good deal of cumulative profundity and an impressively sweeping vision. Yee, described in the playbill as a Chinese/Scottish Hapa Canadian raised in Toronto (where the play premiered), is obviously not one to think small. This production’s artfully fluid scene changes — in which figures we don’t know (or don’t yet know) wander by, looking haunted — add to the sense of a border- and time-spanning panorama. (Jimmy Lawlor designed the resonant lighting.)
Unfortunately, several vignettes lack forward momentum — a defect for which philosophical depth and lyrical shimmer fail to compensate. The dialogue between the priest and the engineer, for instance, meanders quietly, outlining solid theological arguments but failing to deliver much dramatic conflict. In another scene, a surreal conversation between two men plummeting down a bottomless hole (which may be grief itself) might make a knockout poem but feels tediously slow and dreamlike here.
A number of scenes manage to be both meaningful and gripping, particularly when they feature performers Christian and Achrati. Christian’s coarse loudmouth of a DJ helps the radio vignette rollick along, for example. In another suspenseful scene, Christian plays an FBI agent who’s torn between suspicion and empathy as he interrogates a single mother (Achrati, exuding WASPish impatience) about time she spent in Thailand post-tsunami.
With such taut sketches making up only about half of the intermission-less play, “Carried Away” sometimes feels like a mildly virtuosic philosophical exercise — a methodical probing for the social and existential meaning behind pain and randomness. Still, you have to admire Yee’s ambitious vision and rejection of easy answers. “Carried Away” would be thought-provoking even without the echoing context of current events.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by David Yee. Directed by Helen Pafumi; costume design, Madeline Bowden; props, Suzanne Maloney. With Rafael Sebastian Medina and Hedy Hosford. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $20-$30. Through Dec. 8 at the John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. Visit www.thehubtheatre.org or call 800-494-8497.