Never before has an unproduced play by an unknown playwright stirred so much interest and excitement on Buffalo's theater scene.
Ever since heavyweight playwright Edward Albee selected Neil Wechsler's "Grenadine" as the winner of the highly competitive 2008 Yale Drama Award, both the piece and the playwright have been the chatter of theatrical circles both locally and in New York. And on Saturday, after eight years of work on the play and a full year of mounting anticipation, Wechsler's labor of love finally saw the light of day.
In a well-oiled production in the Road Less Traveled Theatre, Wechsler's abstract, strangely comical and charming one-act play received a treatment largely worthy of its wit and originality.
As the lights go up, we meet a motley quartet of vagrants. There's Grove (David Oliver), a perplexed violinist with no perception of time; Sconce (Jay Pichardo), an eternally optimistic rationalist given to grandiose personal stories about historical characters he's never met; Pyx (Luke Wager), who harbors the Whitman-esque notion that he is one with the universe; and finally the crestfallen Prismatic (Gerry Maher), who leads the crew on their sordid quest to reach his recalcitrant lover, Grenadine.
Wechsler's writing, like his characters, is willfully enigmatic and infused with a kind of playfully erudite, post-adolescent humor, which is nearly always well timed and placed. That's especially true in the case of Pyx, who proclaims at various points that he "is" such concepts as ambiguity, contradiction and music. On the point of Pyx, he seemed to me a great deal funnier in the script than onstage, which could be attributable to the bombast of Wager's performance.
But within that wise and wry humor, Wechsler has buried great pieces of insight. When Prismatic criticizes Sconce for rhapsodizing about his fictional travels with Sir Galahad, one of the many strange characters the group meets along the way corrects him.
"Too often we distrust our imaginations," the man says. "More of us should think we traveled with Galahad." And right he is.
If Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" was, as Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1956, "an acrid cartoon of the story of mankind," Wechsler's debut is a similarly sparse cartoon of similar scope but far more hopeful ambitions. Where Beckett hacked away at the inane to reveal near-terminal hopelessness, Wechsler instead uncovers a sort of buried joy.
Director Scott Behrend has given Wechsler's play the look and feel of an early "Star Trek" episode. The colors in Ron Schwartz's fine set are heightened to the point of surrealism, as are the mannerisms and dialogue of Wechsler's four main characters. They are lost in unfamiliar territory, and their playful antagonism seems to be the main thing that sustains them (and their audience) through their wanderings.
Wechsler leaves the story, such as it is, open to interpretation. Constant references to Greek mythology -- as well as Irish and English folklore -- can't help but put one in mind of Odysseus. Though Wechsler's characters are skilled in few of the ways of contending, they seem to represent different sides of the same personality -- our hero's brain split into its rational, poetic and impulsive facets.
No doubt each audience member comes away scratching his head a bit, perhaps formulating a unique take on the vague meanings of the play's great quest. That ambiguity, and the enticing challenge it poses for theatergoers, is but one of the many charms of this fine new play.
> Theater Review
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Comedy presented by Road Less Traveled Productions, Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre, 639 Main St. For information, call 629-3069 or visit www.roadless- traveledproductions.org.