A Wonderful New World: CTC’s sophisticated summer comedy

One of the true pleasures of summer in Rhode Island is spending an evening at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, where they’ve built a reputation for offering any and every kind of programming you can think of to fill up the warmest nights of the year. The theater produces engaging shows year-round, but there’s always an extra bit of magic in South County around this time.

At first glance, CTC’s latest production — David Lindsay-Abaire’s Wonder of the World — seems like your standard summer fare.  Lindsay-Abaire is now known for acclaimed blue-collar, hyper-realistic dramas like Rabbit Hole and Good People, but, at one point, he was looking like the heir apparent to Christopher Durang, whom he studied under at Julliard. His play Fuddy Meers mixes off-the-wall, high concept humor with an underlying darkness that every so often snaps at the audience unexpectedly like a little dog with a big bite.

Wonder of the World premiered in 2001 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and it had the distinction of featuring Sarah Jessica Parker as the lead.  Unfortunately, it’s not as widely done as Fuddy Meers, although one of its more interesting monologues is a favorite for actors looking to make a splash with audiences — more on that later.

What makes Wonder of the World seem like such a spot-on pick for summer is that it features zany hijinks, romantic storylines and a trip to Niagara Falls. CTC has gone as far as making sure a slight mist envelops the theater every time the characters approach the falls (I won’t give away how they do it). But the refreshing part of a show like this isn’t just the spray, it’s that the CTC never takes the easy route when it comes to play selection. What may seem like a wild and wacky ride reveals itself to be a touching look at a woman trying to capture the life she never had and always wanted, and a friendship between two female characters that’s somewhere between Lucy and Ethel and Thelma and Louise.

The strength of this production is that very relationship, played beautifully by Alexis Ingram as Cass and Steph Rodger as Lois. While their excursion to the falls leads to a romance between Cass and a boat captain named (appropriately) Captain Mike, the heart of the story rests in the unlikely friendship of the two women.

Director Christopher Simpson keeps the pacing tight, which is a smart idea, because while the script has its lovely and clever moments, it also needed some trimming — particularly in Act Two when the characters play a version of “The Newlywed Game” that goes on too long considering it’s only a bit more than a clever plot device. That’s no fault of the production, but I was glad to see them approach the show with a madcap sensibility in the beginning so they could earn the quieter, more sensitive moments, like the ones between Cass and Captain Mike when she first encounters him on his ship.

Captain Mike is played with just the right amount of sincerity by Andrew Katzman. His subtlety helps contrast the two men in Cass’ life — the other being her husband, Kip, played with a wonderful mix of sadness and hysteria by Sam Avigdor. The first scene between Avigdor and Ingram is a standout, and it lets you know you’re in capable hands for a deceptively difficult show that wanders through romantic comedy and near absurdism.

In terms of the absurd, there’s a rotating cast of characters all played gleefully and with tremendous skill by Rebecca Magnotta. I found her trio of waitresses to be exceptional in a restaurant split-scene that is a high-point for the ensemble. She does a fine job overall of adding a touch of the surreal to the show. One of her characters is a helicopter pilot in a scene that features the infamous “doll’s head” story that any actor who has perused a comedic monologue book would be all-too-familiar with, and I thought Ingram did a great job of conveying the story using real emotion without trying to go for the laughs.

In fact, the entire production is smartly shaped as a drama with jokes, which is just the right approach to take with Lindsay-Abaire’s earlier work. The script offers a lot of obstacles — multiple locations, accidental murder and dialogue that requires a His Girl Friday level of speed at times — but they handle it all nicely.

Remember that scene I talked about that’s a bit overwritten?

While it can’t help but slow down the show, it is a nice chance to watch the ensemble all onstage together working like a troupe that’s been doing this show for years. Father Kelley and Christine Magnotta take two characters who could have leveled off slightly above “cartoonish,” but instead they find a way to add their own quiet touches of humanity. Often, the trap in comedy is to dispense with any deeper emotions in favor of lifting the energy with volume and vivacity, but Simpson is a director who makes smart decisions, and so instead, we keep coming back to that human element that makes it all work.

So, the good news for anyone looking for smart summer theater at a time when we’re usually allowed to indulge in some mind-numbing material, is that Wonder of the World is both entertaining and exhilarating. While the title may not be well-known, like the characters in the play, you should do yourself a favor and take the leap.

The Contemporary Theater Company presents David Lindsay-Abaire’s Wonder of the World, 327 Main St, Wakefield. Performances: Fri & Sat, Aug 9-31 at 7 pm. *Not appropriate for children. Purchase tickets by phone at 401-218-0282 or in person at the theater. For more information, visit contemporarytheatercompany.com.

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