If all goes according to Actors Comedy Lab co-founder and director Rod Rich's carefully crafted plan, Wonder of the World will unleash a Niagara Falls of laughter. Cass (recent N.C. State University graduate Tracey Phillips) is the feisty heroine of this R-rated madcap comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers).
Cass is a woman on a mission. Seven years ago, she chose matrimony over the trip of a lifetime, with her parents, to Niagara Falls. Turning down a chance to visit this wonder of the world was a choice that proved doubly disastrous when her mother died in the freak automobile accident that left her father crippled and then the man of her dreams, husband Kip (Scott Franco, making his ACL debut), turned out to have this nightmarish sexual perversion.
So, Cass walks out on Kip, and buys a bus ticket to Niagara Falls, where she hopes to reclaim the destiny that awaited here there seven years ago. It is a crazy notion, but then Wonder of the World is a crazy play.
On the bus, Cass meets and buddies up with a suicidal alcoholic named Lois (MaryKate Cunningham), who's carrying her own (pickle) barrel to the Falls, hoping that her spectacular death there will send the husband who cruelly walked out on her on a lifelong guilt trip.
"We were familiar with David Lindsay-Abaire from [the recent Manbites Dog Theater production of] Fuddy Meers," says Rod Rich, "and my wife, [ACL co-founder] Nancy, called my attention to [Wonder of the World] a year ago when an article about it appeared in The New York Times. Simultaneously, Diane Gilboa got a reader's copy of it, thought it might be perfect for Actors Comedy Lab, and passed it on to [ACL co-founders] Bunny and Jack Safron. It reads like a dream, and we immediately sent off for rights, and went to see a production playing in Atlanta to check out what it looked like on stage.
"It looked good," he says. "Real good. Just like an ACL show should."
Rich adds, "I love the quirky, offbeat sense of humor in the show. How can one resist a show that teams a desperate woman who's just left her husband with a suicidal alcoholic and makes it all laugh-out-loud funny? (People who've attended rehearsals still get the giggles after seeing it several times in a row.)"
Rod Rich admits the plot is convoluted. "Cass Harris has discovered an unsavory secret about her husband, Kip, that convinces her that her marriage to him was a big mistake. So, she abruptly lights out for Niagara Falls to find her lost destiny and fulfill a wild and impractical list of goals she's kept for years. ('Make friends with a clown. Have a fling with a bellboy. Wear a large wig.' And so on.)
"On the way," Rich says, "she meets Lois, the aforementioned suicidal alcoholic, whose plan is to get revenge on the husband that left her by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, presumably to inflict him with festering guilt. Tracked by two incompetent detectives [ACL veteran Bunny Safron and ACL first-timer Jerry Zieman) hired by Kip, Cass encounters the taciturn captain of the Maid of the Mist, Captain Mike [Kevin Ferguson], who helps her check off quite a few items on her list! The other six characters in this raucous adventure are played by the multifaceted Morrisa Nagel."
Nagel has a plum part in which she plays a Southern tourist with pattern baldness, a helicopter pilot, three wild and crazy waitresses from exotic theme restaurants, and a kooky marriage counselor who arrives in a clown suit!
Rich says "Sets!" provide the major challenge to making this off-the-wall comedy come to life. "The locations include Cass's condo, a hotel room, a helicopter, three restaurants (simultaneously), the Hurricane Deck, and the Falls themselves," Rich explains. "Fortunately, we had the talents of the amazingly talented [set designer] Bill Rodgers working with us to realize all these places, as well as [sound designer] Tony Hefner, who designed the sound to help create the environments."
Rich says the ACL set for Wonder of the World is "all white, with phrases from Cass's list streaming down all surfaces. Two platforms rotate to create different locations." He adds that the lighting is "naturalistic — except for those crazy restaurants!"
Costume designer Vanessa Streeter adds a visually striking array of modern, medieval, gothic, and native American dress. And Amy Flynn and Jane Strikeleather have assembled an impressive assortment of zany props to highlight the hilarity.
The New York Times praised the "hefty laughter" that the original production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World generated, adding that "[It] is exceedingly whimsical and playfully wicked. Winning and genial." The Variety critic agreed: "Full frontal lunacy is on display. A most assuredly fresh and hilarious tragicomedy of marital discord run amok. Lindsay-Abaire's flair for the absurd combines nicely with an ability to pull laughs out of any situation. Absolutely hysterical."
The Washington Post said, "People in psychic pain have never agonized so hilariously as in David Lindsay-Abaire's revved-up, joyously zany play." The Hollywood Reporter added, "Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose Fuddy Meers became one of the most acclaimed comedies in recent seasons, should cement his reputation with his newest effort, a wonderfully daffy, surreal extravaganza. Wonder of the World is a hilarious confection. Lindsay-Abaire further establishes himself here as a writer with a terrific gift for absurdist humor, leavened with just enough doses of seriousness to provide emotional resonance." And the Associated Press critic called the play "wild and crazy" and boldly declared "David Lindsay-Abaire delights in the demented."
Although much of Wonder of the World is set beside and below Niagara Falls, audiences won't need their raincoats. But they may need their earmuffs.
"The play is a feisty R for language," cautions director Rod Rich, "and flash cameras will be used, as well as firearms."
Actors Comedy Lab presents Wonder of the World Friday-Saturday, July 11-12, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 13, at 3 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, July 16-19, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 20, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, July 23-26, at 8 p.m. in N.C. State University's Thompson Studio Theatre at the corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr. in Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Thursday-Saturday and $12 Wednesday and Sunday, except $2 off for TheatreFest subscribers. 919/515-1100. http://www.actorscomedylab.com/upcoming.html.