By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Early on in Florida Stage's The Pavilion, the narrator looks out at the audience and declares, "This is a play about time." Normally such an audacious statement might undercut the play's actual content, but The Pavilion delves into the concepts of time, memory, and perception so thoroughly, and often eloquently, that the opening thesis becomes a helpful guidepost for the audience's journey.
The Pavilion is the story of two adults returning to their youth and their first significant romantic relationship. The vehicle for this encounter is a mainstay of American culture: the high school class reunion. Kari (Kimberly Kay) and Peter (Stephen G. Anthony) were named "cutest couple" at Pine City High School, but their relationship ended prematurely and abruptly when Peter went off to college. The breakup gradually is revealed in greater detail throughout the play. Now, twenty years later, they arrive separately to their class reunion. Peter totes both flowers and the hope that he will be able to reconcile with Kari, who is still bitter and wants nothing to do with him. In a series of dialogues ranging from humorous to confrontational, The Pavilion traces Kari and Peter's encounter with the past and the profound effect it has had on their lives.
Author Craig Wright wisely avoids the temptation to populate The Pavilion with a large cast of overweight ex-cheerleaders and star-quarterbacks-turned-shoe salesmen. Ingeniously he uses a narrator (J.C. Cutler) to structure the play and to portray a motley crew of fellow graduates from the class of '81. Given that only two characters assume the dramatic weight of the piece, it is a largely dialogue-driven play. That said The Pavilion does have a poetic and philosophical element, which is filtered through the narrator's role. The narrator speculates on the stars, the universe, and the constellations with a poetic tone that complements the unmistakably realistic scenario at hand. At times these monologues get a bit unwieldy and lengthy; consequently they lose some of their power. Wright also has written in some unnecessarily cutesy moments, in which the narrator acts as a surrogate God. He interrupts his own meanderings to call out: "Hey, can we get some stars here?" and poof! the backdrop lights up. Fortunately such moments are infrequent.
Anthony, who recently played the simultaneously endearing and arrogant adulterer in GableStage's The Real Thing, has an ease onstage that I have seen in few other South Florida leading men. Playing the repentant ex-boyfriend now grown into a self-flagellating man, he wins over the audience with his sincerity and honesty. But Peter also has backbone and passion. Wright's script is a venture into memory; for Peter memory doesn't just mean riding on the coattails of Kari's version of their relationship. He has his own interpretation, and, as the intuitive actor he is, Anthony doesn't show his whole hand right away; instead he lets the richness of his character emerge gradually, from hesitant and somewhat awkward to passionate.
Kay's character is not quite as deftly revealed as Anthony's. She enters the play angry and stays that way until very late. True, she has more to be angry about, but her emotionality is a bit static and not entirely believable, particularly in the first half of the first act. Kari stands rigidly and assaults Peter with a litany of bitter wisecracks. When Peter apologizes, she retorts, "Sorry is not a word. Sorry is just a noise people make when nothing else can happen." This goes on pretty much throughout the first half of the play. It's hard to believe anyone shows up at their high school reunion that pissed off. Director Louis Tyrrell could guide Kay a bit more to taper her anger in the beginning so that it corresponds with what we know about her relationship with Peter.
As we find out more about their relationship at the end of the first act and beginning of the second, Kay seems more grounded; as Act Two progresses, both she and Anthony hit an incredible stride, creating a chemistry onstage that, for all the potentially cliched romanticism contained in the plot, rings surprisingly and gratifyingly human.
Cutler is excellent as he morphs into myriad classmates attending the reunion. He has a keen sense of the space and movement and creates the sensation of disappearing and reappearing without ever exiting the stage. He also possesses the vocal range and interpretive skill this role demands, portraying some fifteen characters. His shape-shifting often adds an element of comedy to the play and helps maintain a balance between Kari and Peter's interpersonal drama and the social phenomenon that surrounds them.
As a structure that both shelters and adorns, The Pavilion is a stunning metaphor for this couple's moving encounter with memory. Rather than thrashing about in an infinite sea of memory and perception, Kari and Peter form a new relationship through their exploration of the past, reminding us that even as we are reliving memories, we are making new ones. As the narrator muses: "Do we become by forgetting or by remembering the past?"
The play's answer to this riddle may surprise you.
Wendy Wasserstein's character-driven scripts and kosher wisecracks usually make for lively theater. A very structured writer, she crafts her plays with little dead weight or distracting abstraction.