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321 lrl Ironies & Pyrenees

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Of the many consequences resulting from the terror attacks of September 11, one was supposed to be the death of irony. Yet a quick pulse-check, with 9/11's five-year anniversary only a few weeks away, suggests that irony is alive and well.

The continued success of those irony giants, The Daily Show and The Onion, is prime evidence, but a more subtle tribute to the enduring power of irony is currently running at a small theater in North Hollywood.

Craig Wright's play Recent Tragic Events is about a blind date scheduled for September 12, 2001. Despite much agonizing over whether it's appropriate or not, both parties do meet up for dinner. Andrew, a shy bookstore manager, arrives at the apartment of Waverly, an attractive blond who works in advertising. Eventually, the wacky neighbor from down the hall stops by, leading one to suspect that Recent Tragic Events is an attempt to imagine a Seinfeld episode had the show stayed on the air through the fall of 2001.

The play does deliver some hilarious awkward moments, but the author also ups the absurdity beyond even Kramer or Costanza-esque heights. Other guests who drop by include a mute without pants, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, and a sock puppet.

This may sound like sacrilege or a bad late-nite skit, yet the play is surprisingly touching. Wright disarms with sitcom-style antics, but he uses these winking devices to quietly theorize why humorous, offhanded cynicism didn't disappear the day after 9/11. Irony is America's way of not confronting bad news, and the point of Recent Tragic Events is that rather than breaking us of this habit, 9/11 has only made it worse. Sometimes though, it's hard to tell if Wright's writing becomes symptomatic of his own diagnosis, for example he puts Brechtian air-quotes around the emotional climax, carefully insulating himself against charges of sentimentality.

When Wright's self-referential techniques fall flat, luckily the excellent cast in Stuart Rogers' fluid production balances the irony with honest humanity. Drake Simpson has the bravura role of Ron, the Slacker Rock-wannabe next-door, but it's the reluctant tenderness of Dawn Burgess and Nathan Brooks Burgess as the blind dates that give these events an unexpected poignancy.

Pyrenees, a new play by David Greig, also mixes pathos and dry humor in the tale of a lost loved one. It too features impeccably natural performances by its lead couple. Tom Irwin plays a man wandering around Europe, who says he can't remember who he is. Frances Conroy (of HBO's Six Feet Under) is the woman who may or may not be his wife. The two characters rarely interact face-to-face, but Irwin and Conroy are so comfortable in the skin of these two parts, that their connection is tangible, even as both desperately try to hide their true feelings towards each other.

Those who happened to catch Greig's earlier drama, The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union (staged at La Jolla Playhouse in 2000 and Hollywood's Open Fist Theatre in 2003) will find similarities between these two plays. Pyrenees' title may be fourteen words shorter than Cosmonaut's, but both plays display Greig's rambling, whimsical style. Digressions and soliloquies alternate with long silences, often to poetic effect.

This worked well in Cosmonaut, which cross-cut between a number of intersecting stories. With Pyrenees though, Greig holds his focus on only one story--a postscript of sorts to an event that happens near the end of Cosmonaut--and this causes his long-winded yarn to slightly wear out its welcome. The problematic play is elevated by its able cast--and the sleek production designed by Mark Wendland which makes elegant and expansive use of the Kirk Douglas Theatre's intimate space.

Pyrenees runs until this Sunday at the Douglas, Recent Tragic Events continues at Theatre Tribe in North Hollywood through August 5.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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