Pound for pound, scene for scene, massive jar of peanut butter for massive jar of peanut butter, I can’t think of a recent local play that packs in more laughs than the very funny (and very weird) “Wonder of the World” at Fresno State. (It continues 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at the John Wright Theatre.)
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire plumbed the depths of human grief so deeply in his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Rabbit Hole” that it left me emotionally shaken. (Artists’ Repertory Theater performed the play in 2009.) So it was quite a change for me to enter the absurd comic world that Lindsay-Abaire creates in “World.” It’s like going down a completely different kind of rabbit hole.
When we meet Cass (a hard-working Elisa Alpizar), she’s on the verge of walking out on her dweebish husband, Kip (Jacob Rico, who has fun carving out a role of wondrous nerdiness). The night before, Cass discovered a dark secret in her husband’s sweater drawer — something so shocking that she opts to chuck her marriage and flee to Niagara Falls in search of a new beginning.
A genial sense of the absurd permeates this well-staged production, directed with comic vigor by Brad Myers. In many ways it follows a typical “hit the road to find yourself” trope, as Cass bumps into a series of eccentric characters on her journey. Chief among them is the trippy Lois (a standout Aubrianne Scott), whom Cass meets on the bus. The suicidal Lois is traveling with her own barrel, in which she plans to fling herself off the falls.
Cass’ new acquaintances include a tour-boat captain (an amiable and assured Ryan Woods), a pair of odd elderly tourists (Sharayah C. Veith and Ryan D. Torres in strong and sharply directed supporting performances) and even a crackpot therapist (a deft and grandiose Jochebed Smith) with a tough-love approach to marital difficulties.
Just how wacky is “Wonder of the World”? Contemporary references abound, from Costco and medieval-themed restaurants to Barbie, with a strong emphasis on R-rated themes (including, ahem, an unforgettable description of sexual deviance and lots of adult language. Just because Barbie plays a pivotal role doesn’t mean that young doll-lovers should be in the audience). Lindsay-Abaire skewers pop culture with zeal, and his zany plots twists and wild coincidences might have those in the audience less susceptible to manic storytelling rolling their eyes at various times. The penultimate scene, filled with TV-game-show inspired hilarity and various violent shenanigans, does stray into straight-up silly territory, which undercuts the impact a little. But by that time, you’ve either bought into the playwright’s wackiness or written it off.
As for larger or deeper issues, Lindsay-Abaire tackles such themes as fate and the meaning of life, though this isn’t exactly a major-league philosophical outing. The main character’s constant questioning and searching, however, does provide a structure for the play beyond mere zaniness. I would have liked to have seen more introspection in Alpizar’s performance, more layers of angst and insecurity.
Through it all, Myers shapes the proceedings with a perky tempo, helped by Jeff Hunter’s scenic design, which shifts between straight realism to what Myers describes as “bold theatricality.” Regina Harris’ lighting design helps create Niagara Falls itself, and Stephanie Bradshaw’s costumes capture a brisk contemporary feel.
My favorite aspect of the production, without a doubt, is Scott’s memorable performance as the alcoholic sidekick Lois. (The character has spent so many years drinking that she’s developed a nervous tic, sucking at a flask every few moments even when it’s empty.) Scott brings a subtle charismatic fizz in to what could have been an overplayed one-dimensional role. With her razor-sharp comic timing and near-cackle of a voice, she’s frequently hilarious. But she’s also vulnerable, and when she lets us glimpse her loneliness, it’s sweet and somehow stirring. And pretty much a “Wonder.”