by Irene Backalenick
It would be heartening to give a rave review to a Westport Country Playhouse show! The historic old theater has made admirable efforts to rise again, to be once more a vibrant part of theater in Connecticut. And certainly its magnificently-restored building pays tribute to that goal. But “The Pavilion,” now at the Playhouse, does not get that rave review.
Not that “The Pavilion” does not have grand intentions, stretches of sheer poetry, and innovative staging. But in the ultimate analysis, it fails as a play. Playwright Craig Wright uses the opening moments to create a universe with lofty imagery and legerdemain. His Narrator (played by Michael Milligan) creates a vast backdrop, against which two little lives will play out. (Memories of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”!) As Narrator, or perhaps Some One sent from above, Milligan has only to raise his finger and time passes or stars drop from the skies.
From left, Michael Milligan and Tracy Middendorf in “The Pavilion” by Craig Wright.
Photo by Richard Termine.
So much for setting, but what, specifically is “The Pavilion” about? In this three-character drama, Wright creates a couple (Peter and Kari) who were once high school sweethearts. Michael Laurence and Tracy Middendorf play the leads, with Michael Milligan seen as the Narrator and others.
Kari and Peter have returned to their 20th high school reunion, only to relive bitter memories. The reunion takes place at The Pavilion, a crumbling century-old lakeside dance hall. During high school days, when Kari had become pregnant, Peter had abandoned her, running away. There is good cause for the tense exchanges during the reunion, and the play carries a momentum, a forward movement in the first act. Will Kari forgive? Will they ultimately reunite at this reunion? As Milligan plays out all the other returnees, one gets a real sense of the occasion—of the many old friends who have thrived or failed or merely survived—and of one long evening.
But the second act (during which the couple sits on the wharf, dangling feet in the lake, and appearing to reconcile) falters. What is Wright trying to say—that you can’t go home again, that time cannot rewind, that lives are insignificant in the grand scheme of things? It is any one’s guess and no one’s guess.
In any event, the staging of director Chad Rabinovitz is effective, and the performances competent. Middendorf is most moving as Kari, and Laurence creates a vulnerable, sensitive Peter (though somewhat lacking in warmth). Milligan sounds the perfect note as the Narrator, holding the stage with assurance and other-worldly style. But his many alumni portrayals are unconvincing. Multiple role-playing may be the ultimate challenge for a player (which some actors have managed brilliantly), but Milligan’s work falls short.
In summary, “The Pavilion” comes off as two separate endeavors—one a poetry reading, the other a play—which have been awkwardly cobbled together. This is not the “masterful blend of comedy and drama” we have been led to expect.