By Perry Tannenbaum
September 12, 2015, Cornelius, NC – Tarnished by his complicity in the scripts of two lackluster musicals, Shrek and High Fidelity, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s reputation still gleams through the zaniness of two early comedies, Fuddy Mears and Wonder of the World, and his two subsequent dramas, Rabbit Hole and Good People. Twenty miles north of uptown Charlotte, the Warehouse Performing Arts Center is clearly more attracted to Lindsay-Abaire’s comical works, never mind their age. After bringing Fuddy Meers to their Cornelius storefront last September, 15 years after its Manhattan Theatre Club premiere, Warehouse has turned to Wonder of the World, Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 MTC hit, with Marla Brown directing once again.
The cramped venue proves more ideal this time around, even if the denouement does involve two ditzy dames heading downstream in a barrel toward Niagara Falls. One of them, Cass, drives the story after ditching her husband Kip way back in the opening scene. What passes for Cass’s motivation doesn’t emerge until after she’s long gone, but Kip’s perversion will likely change how you think about Barbie dolls for the next couple of years. Nor is Kip in hopeless despair after Cass leaves him. While Cass is dedicating herself to preventing suicidal alcoholic Lois from ending it all with a barrel ride over the falls, Kip has dispatched a pair of novice detectives, Karla and Glen, hoping to track his wife down, spy on her, determine whether there’s another man, and beg for a reconciliation once he catches up with her.
So like Fuddy Meers – and about a thousand Hollywood comedies before and after the advent of talkies – Wonder of the World becomes a goofball chase. Normality is chiefly anchored in Captain Mike, the tour boat pilot that Cass seduces by dint of her sheer candor and vitality. There’s a uniquely American quality to Cass that’s summed up in the to-do list she carries around with her, so lengthy that she needs to frequently unravel it just to remind herself what’s on it. Precisely because she has absolutely no clue about what she wants or how to live, Cass wants to do it all. Cass’s bucket list is a treat in itself.
When Wonder of the World first came to Charlotte in 2004, it was by far the best locally-produced comedy that year, so credit goes to Brown and her cast for repolishing and refreshing this gem. Paralleling the downsizing of the venue, the Warehouse has taken this movie-like comedy and discarded its scenic and personal glamor. Wonder of wonders, Lindsay-Abaire’s romp plays rather handsomely when it’s about frumpy, ordinary people. What’s chiefly attractive about Zendyn Duellman as the wildly irrational Cass is the bright optimistic zest of her willfulness. Yet she’s a fairy princess compared to Anne Lambert as the world-weary Lois, who dully deadpans some the most devastating lines in the show.
With a juicy contrast like this, you wouldn’t expect to need much in the way of comic relief, but there’s plenty. Lesi Jonap and Brian Rassler are endearingly humdrum as the bumbling, dysfunctional detective duo, with Karla clearly being the brains of the outfit. Della Freedman gets to romp around in a cluster of cameos, including a helicopter pilot, waitresses at three diverse restaurants simultaneously serving the rest of the cast, and – most colossal of all – a paroled family therapist in a clown suit who fulfills Cass’s fantasy of appearing on an episode of The Dating Game.
Cass’s hapless liaisons are both adorable. With his strange Barbie fetish, Kip is clearly the more outré of the two, which adds to the strangeness of Cass melting into the arms of Captain Mike, the most wholesome person we see, then shying away when he suggests they do something wildly adventurous together. Amos McCandless makes Kip so weak and whiny in his adoring servility that you feel sympathy for him immediately while recognizing that the boy needs serious psychological help. Like Lambert as Lois, Roger Watson adds some edginess to the comedy as Captain Mike that wasn’t there in the 2004 edition at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. Watson isn’t the young, fresh, wholesome dreamboat Michael Nester was, simply because a couple more decades have weathered his tall, winsome frame. There’s just a little more poignancy to his romance with Cass, more of a belated midlife rebirth, and the ending of the show felt just a little more right because Watson was our Captain.