Stage: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
The Pavilion\r\nThur-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 4pm and 8:30pm thru April 19 at Circle Theatre, 230 W Fourth St, FW. $15-25. 817-877-3040.
Zero Gravity

With The Pavilion, \r\nCircle Theatre wonders \r\nif heavy philosophy can hang from flimsy branches.

Due to traffic snarls, I missed the first 10 minutes of Circle Theatre’s current show, The Pavilion, and, as a result, didn’t get to see the creation of the universe. The Narrator (Kevin Scott Keating), an omniscient presence who directly addresses the audience, describes the history of the planet, leading right up to an event at a lakeside pavilion in the fictional small town of Pine City, Minn. As you can imagine, this is one comic drama that doesn’t take time lightly. The problems of past opportunities missed, fear of unhappiness continuing into the future, and total oblivion regarding what’s happening in the moment — the present that T.S. Eliot calls “the still point of the turning world” — saturate the script, written by Craig Wright. He has created The Pavilion as a conscious homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which an onstage host helps take the themes of life, love, and death to operatic heights through the examination of mundane lives. Wright is more consciously poetic in his language than Wilder but just as interested in putting relatively ordinary people “at the center of the universe.”

Bank clerk Kari (Michelle Michael, who’s a dead ringer for indie film actress Laura Linney) and psychologist Peter (Trey Walpole) are the subject of most of the gossip at their 20th annual high school reunion. They were voted “the cutest couple in school,” then promptly underwent a traumatic breakup instigated by Peter. Both are currently in unsatisfying relationships, and, over the years, Peter has come to the conclusion that he lost “the world,” as he puts it, when he left Kari. She has come to believe life is good if it’s simply “bearable.” Peter, who is accurately described by Kari as “cosmically stupid,” wants her back and will do anything achieve that — even imitating the all-powerful Narrator in an attempt to restart the universe and return to high school.

The Pavilion is considerably wittier than you would surmise from that synopsis, but it’s not much more substantial. The production gets maximum mileage out of the actors’ tart-tongued exchanges. In terms of their appearance and demeanor, Michael and Walpole have been perfectly cast as the leads by director Natalie Gaupp. Both are a pleasure to watch. Kevin Scott Keating is a bit problematic playing The Narrator and various wacky reunion guests. I’ve seen this actor give many performances over the years, and his specialty is characters who are either smugly obsequious or psychotic in a nebbish, loner way (and that’s a compliment; he’s good at both). To his credit, he earns the show’s biggest laughs as, variously, a drunken wife kvetching about her unfaithful husband and a stoned chief of police. He may have the timing, but he lacks the versatility to give these roles really convincing individual lives. And he definitely doesn’t exude the onstage authority required for a wise, merciful God figure.

This production of The Pavilion is a sometimes-hilarious but mostly modest, unmemorable affair, and I can’t lay too much of the blame on the actors or director Gaupp. It’s partly me, and partly the playwright. For those of us who had a generally enjoyable high school experience — we seem to be a quiet minority — but believe that so-called “real life” didn’t kick in until after graduation, a 20th anniversary class reunion is an awfully flimsy framework on which to drape the kind of velvety philosophizing that Wright has penned. And though both Michael and Walpole deliver their performances with poignant care, the playwright is clearly more interested in expounding on the vagaries of passing time than in developing these roles to the point where we really believe Peter is desperate to reunite with his high school sweetheart. I was thinking an event like a funeral would’ve lent some of the play’s lovelier sentiments some gravity (and, hey, maybe the corpse could be The Narrator?). As it stands now, Circle Theatre’s The Pavilion is a pleasant evening that ends with the lingering sense you don’t really know these people any better than when you first met them.

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