By J. Scott Hill

In the movie Stripes, Army enlistee John Winger (Bill Murray) and the rest of his mismatched unit of misfits cause their sergeant to be hospitalized and must finish their Basic Training on their own. In the end they succeed, in spite of their sergeant and in spite of themselves. There is an element of this in LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s production of Wonder of the World at the Side Project Theater. It is a mixed bag that ultimately succeeds on the strength of some of the performances.

Wonder of the World is the story of Cass Harris, who abandons her husband and her life to find herself. A trip to Niagara Falls gives her license to ponder crossed destinies and the road not taken. With her boozy new friend Lois, Cass bounces from one bizarre set of circumstances to another. Nothing is sacred; in fact, some of it is very funny.

Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire routinely creates characters who are searching for themselves, for clear purpose. Everyone in Wonder of the World is striving to make sense of something important to them. With all this play has going for it, the laughs are more “Wocka Wocka Wocka” than organic. Lindsay-Abaire’s script smacks of his mentor from Juilliard, Christopher Durang, without ever rising to the supreme goofiness of The Actor’s Nightmare or Titanic.

Scenic Designer Anders Jacobson packs a lot into a small set, creating distinct performance spaces in nooks and on small risers resembling sections of pier. The stippled walls are strongly evocative of the ubiquitous mist and water of the falls.

The venue, the Side Project Theater, is a classic little black box. The great thing about a production in a little black box is that it is so intimate; the terrible thing about a production in a little black box is that it is so intimate. Performances can be more understated and subtle, but maintaining the illusion of the fourth wall becomes more difficult. One tiny lighting effect can well represent mighty Niagara, yet the spillover from the stage lighting can illuminate the house and put audience members right in the poor performers’ laps. The cast overcomes the difficulties of the space for the most part — although some scenes feel less part of a staged theatrical production and more like friends performing their party-pieces for other friends.

There are a few standout performances.

When Wonder of the World opened, I thought the actor playing Kip Harris — Joel Ewing — was flat; I was quickly proved wrong. Ewing brings an unexpected realism to the nerdy selfishness of Kip. Clearly, Joel Ewing starts off that character so lacking of personality that he has room to build without raising Kip above bland – a bold choice that really pays off.

Madeline Long is adorable as Cass Harris.  Her doe-eyed naiveté only ever comes across as ignorant of the truth — never stupid nor childlike. Long shines, as Cass confidently and assertively metamorphoses into herself through some pretty trying situations without becoming cynical.

The performer that really wins me over is Deborah Craft as six — count ‘em, six — characters. From a crazy wig lady to a clown/marriage counselor/game-show host, Craft broadly brings a hilarious half-dozen distinct personalities to life.

There are some minor problems with clumsy blocking and with a giant pickle barrel that is integral to the plot but just in the way most of the time. The one real letdown is that the script just isn’t as funny as these actors are–especially Joel Ewing, Madeline Long, and the sublime Deborah Craft. If the entire show were as hilarious as the game show scene about three-quarters of the way in, I would go back every night of the run.

Overall, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s production of Wonder of the World soldiers on engagingly with a cast that deserves more laughs than this script provides.

2 ½ STARS

(“Wonder of the Worldruns through April 5 at The Side Project Theatre, 1439 West Jarvis. 312-533-4666.)  LiveWire Chicago Theatre

Wonder of the World production photos by Sebastian Aguirre

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