Lots of Roar in Mr. Wolf, But is There Much Bite?

Tessa Auberjonois, Jon Tenney, Emily James and John de Lancie in Mr. Wolf
Tessa Auberjonois, Jon Tenney, Emily James and John de Lancie in Mr. Wolf
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

Rajiv Joseph is a playwright making a lot of noise in American theater. The 40-year-old (who served in the Peace Corps in Senegal for three years and what have YOU done with your miserable life?) was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize with his Benghal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which starred the late, great Robin Williams in its Broadway run. And while one can argue over whether a distinction like that truly merits respect (isn't it possible that some years, plays just suck?) as Southern California's most prolific, and terrifically curmudgeonly critic, Tony Frankel wrote last year, there's no denying that theaters love producing his work, as his plays have been mounted at a score of top theaters across the country and he has two world premieres this spring, one next month at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City, and Mr. Wolf, commissioned by South Coast Repertory.

Based on the tight and taut work, it's clear that Joseph has a strong and unique voice. What isn't so clear is whether he has that much of interest to say. Some of that in Mr. Wolf may lie in the fact that he's not interested in delivering answers. He's just asking questions--more than 400 according to the program. Those questions range from the first principle of ancient astronomy to why people get divorced, and most of them are posed by Emily James (a current theater student at Cal State Fullerton in a leading role at a professional theater, and if you're a current college student, what are YOU doing with your life?), a 15-year-old who, after her abduction at age 3, has never interacted with another human other than her abductor, a mysterious Mr. Wolf (John DeLance). It begins and ends with questions and along the way are heady issues of God and existence, probed against the backdrop of child abduction and the junction between astronomy and metaphysics.

Wolf delves into Big Ideas and grim reality, but not always agilely. The play never seems to make up its mind what it wants to be: a family drama about the search for a missing child; a CSI-like crime drama, a meditation on the role of the individual in the cosmic play of reality. As blame, hope, fear and uncertainty swirl with increasing velocity, it sometime seems as if the center will not hold. But, Joseph's obvious writing talent and fine performances from the cast, which include Jon Tenney as an obsessive father, Tessa Auberjonois as a more fatalistic mother, and Kwana Martinez as a desperate mother of an abducted child still yet to be found, keep things intact.

The most interesting character in the play is James' Theresa, and from this corner at any rate, the focus should have been more on her, and less about her parents. As her story unfolds in fits and starts, we start to realize that she's not quite what anyone thinks she is, and as her apparent Stockholm Syndrome grows creepier and creepier, thanks to James' layered performance, she becomes a genuine mystery and the most perplexing question of all of them.

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Space--emotional and spatial, intimate and cosmological--plays an enormous part in the play (kudos to Nephelie's Anonyadis' set design, which features characters dwarfed by enormous set pieces, and David Emmes management of the acting space, with characters rarely standing or sitting next to one another). As Theresa asks late in the play,when she sees a horse for the first time, how is it possible that some things are so big, and she is so small?

Whether audience members think Joseph's play is big or small might depend on how much they feel like engaging with it after they've left the theater.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. & 7:45 p.m. Thru May 3. www.scr.org.

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