Michael L. Quintos
Whether the result is good or bad, there's a certain amount of bravery involved in constantly championing and commissioning new works. It almost seems like, lately, you can't go a month without a brand new, fully-mounted world premiere play emerging from the stages of South Coast Repertory, Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater.
SCR's latest offering, MR. WOLF—now on stage in Costa Mesa through May 3—continues this admirable practice, resulting in a high-quality presentation of an intriguingly audacious if not quite fully-gestated new world premiere play from Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph, the playwright behind the celebrated BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO.
In Mr. Joseph's enticing new drama, MR. WOLF employs a mostly riveting, ripped-from-the-headlines plot to tell the story of Theresa (played by captivating newcomer Emily James), an impressionable, incessantly-inquisitive 15-year-old who displays great academic intelligence beyond her years that is manifested by her penchant for illustrating giant, awe-inspiring, scientifically-backed murals of the cosmos. The revelation of her thoughtful, colorfully-painted work elicits oohs-and-aahs from both the audience and from her mysterious, much-older mentor, astrophysics professor Mr. Wolf (played by the undeniably ominous John de Lancie) who teaches at the local college. Like a proud papa, Mr. Wolf is beyond ecstatic at the breakthrough(s) that Theresa—an "uncorrupted" mind whom he believes is a Prophet "chosen by God"—has achieved at such a young age.
Theresa's Aspergers-esque mannerisms—which include walking around a circular oriental floor rug repeatedly while she pontificates on the vast mysteries of the universe—suggest that, like many super-smart brainiacs, she will most likely be socially-awkward among her peers and perhaps even a bit naive about certain facets of life not explained in mathematic or scientific principles. Nonetheless, it's clear Mr. Wolf is glad that she's a willing, absorbent sponge of facts and figures, much of which she has procured directly from Mr. Wolf's attentive (maybe too attentive) tutelage and, perhaps, from the giant library of books that line the walls of his grand home.
A learned man of academia encouraging the intellectual talents of a young, clearly brilliant mind? Pretty inspiring, right?
Well... as the play continues through this first of many vignettes, something in the atmosphere seems disturbingly off. Does Mr. Wolf, a purported man of science really think Theresa is a Prophet? Does Theresa really believe that she and Mr. Wolf will somehow see each other again in a parallel universe should they be separated?
Switching moods abruptly, Mr. Wolf is overtaken by nervousness, warning Theresa that the world is coming and that their student-teacher relationship is soon coming to an end. Suddenly, a deafening, consistent banging at the front door is heard, making Mr. Wolf even more spooked.
"Never stop asking questions!" commands Mr. Wolf to his young, intensely devout student. It's apparent he knows what's afoot. The panicked Mr. Wolf runs off in a huff, leaving Theresa in a state of flux as the banging grows louder.
And thus begins Theresa's life-changing new path—one that involves an uneasy reunion with unfamiliar relations, the discovery of the joys of chocolate, and, most importantly, the revelation of the disturbing truth about her childhood.
To be honest, when the play began, part of me groaned a bit. I rolled my eyes fearful that these "deep" monologues and exchanges (most if not all, I anticipated, will just go over my head) are just part of an introductory sampling of what I and this audience will have to sit through for the next two-plus-hours.
But what seems to start out at first as a play that features characters spewing pseudo-intellectual psychobabble that pretentiously waxes poetic on "important" theories about our very place in the cosmos is—surprise—merely a tricky ruse. Once the heavy haze of the opening scene—complete with starry-sky backdrops and an unearthly soundtrack—fades to black, the lights go up to drop us all into, well, a wholly new play, which turns out to be a tension-filled though standard-issue melodrama that attempts to peel the layers of a mystery involving one charismatic man's evil deeds and the trickle-down effect his deeds have on the people connected to his proclivities.
Piece-by-painstaking-piece, the puzzle of Mr. Wolf starts to come together.
Twelve years prior, 3-year-old Theresa inexplicably goes missing, leaving behind devastated parents Michael (Jon Tenney) and Hana (Tessa Auberjonois). The understandable stress of their child going missing eventually splinters their marriage. While Hana wanted closure and to move on in her grief, Michael remains angry and bitter that Hana (now his ex-wife) just gave up too easily, refusing to hold on to the hope that somehow their daughter is still alive (though her family wealth did afford her the luxury of putting up a $1 million reward for info on Theresa's disappearance). After their divorce, Hana retreats to Vancouver.
For his part, Michael finds some support and solace from a local support group for parents of missing children. There he meets shy-and-scared Julie (Kwana Martinez), another parent whose own child also went missing. The two heartbroken souls (apparently) form a quick bond over their mutual predicaments, eventually resulting in Michael and Julie getting married. The pair now live together in the aging, time-trapped house where Michael once made a home with Hana and Theresa. On the wall of their living room, side-by-side, are a pair of framed portraits of Michael's and Julie's respective missing kids.
But lo and behold, to Michael's surprise, he receives news that Theresa, now 15, has been found and is still alive! As it turns out Theresa had been kidnapped by the evil, psychotic Mr. Wolf and has kept her confined to his house for the past twelve years. Unfortunately, as the police were about to arrest Mr. Wolf for his crimes, the deranged man commits suicide—leaving Theresa behind to fend for herself.
So, with Theresa newly free and experiencing the outside world for the first time, she must now adjust to her confusing new surroundings—without the guidance of her svengali and mentor (Spoiler Alert: Mr. Wolf kidnapped Theresa—and other children!—because he believed that really young minds are still uncorrupted by adult nonsense, and are therefore more readily susceptible to absorb the knowledge he was obsessively trying to spread). She is shipped off to her father Michael's house just as Hana returns from Vancouver. Um... Awkward.
Multiple questions arise. How will Theresa's return affect Michael's relationship with his first and second wives respectively? Will Theresa take kindly to her long-lost parents? Was Julie's missing child Casey another one of Mr. Wolf's kidnap victims? And is Theresa genuinely super smart or is she—understandably—mentally unstable thanks to the manipulations instituted by her now diseased captor? Well... it doesn't help her case much considering that Theresa can see Mr. Wolf's visage in the form of a doctor that examines her and the FBI agent who later questions her (both parts are played by de Lancie, giving the actor more stage time after Mr. Wolf's demise).
Directed by David Emmes, one of SCR's founding artistic directors, MR. WOLF is certainly an engrossing drama, but, frankly, feels more like a stand-alone episode of any given TV procedural drama, which by their very nature leaves very little room for real character development, yet provides enough juicy (and at times soapy) melodrama to pique an interested audience. Even the play's structure feels like a succession of vignettes, as if commercial breaks can fit snuggly in between.
MR. WOLF is meant to be provocative, and to a certain extent, the play does achieve that goal. Compelling assists from scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis, costume designer Leah Piehl, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, and surround-sound designs by Cricket S. Myers definitely all help sell the mood.
But beyond its plot and the big gasp-worthy final reveal (admittedly, I saw it from a mile away, but, man, its impact was nonetheless still quite jarring), MR. WOLF is by far an excellent initial draft. Honestly, I was hooked despite being frustrated at times. More than anything, it still needs work fleshing out its peripheral characters to the point where their interactions feel organic and not forcibly manipulated (the character of Theresa, in my opinion, is nearly there, but she'll likely evolve once everyone around her does). And that final "resolution" feels a bit too easy and a little too, well, brushed under the rug, so to speak.
Be that as it may, bravo to the cast for what they brought to their character portrayals. Newcomer James, though surrounded by stellar TV and stage vets, easily mesmerizes as Theresa, the young girl unfortunately caught in the crosshairs of tragic circumstance. At times cray-cray, at times movingly introspective, young Miss James did a great job with essentially the play's main role.
As Theresa's dad Michael, Tenney elicits genuine empathy with his portrait of an anguished father whose heart has been ripped from his insides. While his character could use some more tinkering, there is some terrific acting work on display here, particularly while observing his character's long-lost daughter revel in the simple joy of walking barefoot on an oriental rug.
Providing distinctively contrasting portraits of mothers who've experienced loss (or the possibility of a loss) and deal with it in quite opposite ways, both Auberjonois and Martinez provide exemplary performances to their otherwise underdeveloped characters. And the compelling Mr. de Lancie, despite being saddled with the title character's early death only to return as various characters, still manages to hold our attention. Especially superb: when his Mr. Wolf monologues his motivations. Talk about a shudder moment!
So is this a successful world premiere for SCR? For the most part...sure. Even a first-time, fully-staged production can still be a valid testing ground for work that can only improve in subsequent mountings. Though a few more draft revisits could do wonders, as it stands, there are still plenty of twisty, riveting plot points in MR. WOLF to keep audiences intrigued. Just don't complain when a somewhat similar plot shows up on a future episode of Law and Order: SVU.
Review originally published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.
Performances of the World Premiere production of MR. WOLF continue at South Coast Repertory through May 3, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.