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“Cutest Couple” Re-Unite at 20th High School Reunion: Is There a Second Chance? Can the Universe Start Over?

The PavilionCraig Wright’s The Pavilion, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is a play about time. At their 20th high school reunion, Peter (Matt Seely) and Kari (Katherine Ortmeyer), who were voted “cutest couple” before she got pregnant and he left while she stayed in town and settled down, encounter each other for the first time since graduation.

Peter wants another chance. Kari, living in a loveless marriage, is still bitter and angry at Peter. “Listen,” Peter addresses the Narrator (Uchechi Kalu) of the evening’s events, “can you start the universe all over again?” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hopelessly romantic Gatsby in the 1920s — “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” — and Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber in You Can’t Go Home Again in the 1930s and countless others in fiction and life have wrestled with the same problem. Mr. Wright, writer for several TV series including Six Feet Under and author of Recent Tragic Events, presented at Intime last year, is a seasoned hand at mixing serious and light, the cosmic and the comic.

The Pavilion is the story of the 37-year-old Peter and Kari, but through the persona of its versatile and talented narrator this bittersweet romantic comedy also populates the stage with a rich assortment of eccentric old friends and classmates, including such colorful characters as Kent, the cuckolded police chief on a mission for revenge; the pot-smoking Cookie; Pudge, who mans the profit-making 900-number suicide hotline; and the tough-talking Carla, who readily offers Kari the unsolicited advice: “You want some words to live by? Here’s two: NEVER FORGIVE.”

Though two-dimensional, in many cases caricature-like, and almost, in some cases, too weird to be true, these characters add a generous dose of humor and humanity — resonating particularly for anyone who can remember living in a small town or attending a class reunion.

Ms. Kalu, casually attired in blue jeans, with bare feet, partially unbuttoned white shirt and a conspicuous pocket watch to chart the passage of time throughout the evening, fulfills her multiple roles with skill and strikingly energetic magnetism. As she observes and interacts with the two protagonists and slides seamlessly into and out of a dozen or more characters, she effectively commands the stage. Hers is also the philosophical voice of the play as she eloquently delivers lengthy poetic and philosophic reflections on mortality, missed chances, lost opportunities, and the inevitability of sorrow and regret.

The philosophy here is most effective when most down-to-earth and concise. At times it becomes long-winded and more pretentious than poetic — Mr. Wright’s fault not Theatre Intime’s. Ms. Kalu is at her best when bringing to life the odd menagerie of Pine City, Minnesota celebrators and moving along the engaging story of Kari and Peter.

Mr. Seely’s Peter, tall, dark and disheveled, is appealing — to the audience and, despite herself, to Kari too — in his genuine remorse, and his naive determination to turn back the clock and replay their past. Mr. Seely is convincing throughout, effectively in character in delivering the moments of pain, romance, and comedy, not to mention his moving performance, as part of the reunion evening program, of a guitar ballad, “Down in the Ruined World,” with original music and lyrics by Mr. Wright.

Ms. Ortmeyer as Kari provides a strong counterpart, austere and highly sympathetic as she reveals the details of her life and her sad marriage to the local golf pro. Ms. Ortmeyer is not always as clear, focused, and convincing as her two first-rate colleagues in this production, but she succeeds in creating a memorable characterization.

Set design by Elise Rise, with lighting by Will Gilpin, adopts an appropriately minimalist approach, with only two chairs and a table stage right, an additional two benches and an oval two-level platform center stage. The simplicity here is powerful as the multi-colored lighting complements the actors’ actions and words to create apposite mood shifts throughout the evening. A string of white lights above the audience to represent starlight and a disco ball for the final dance add a captivating touch to the proceedings. The apron of the stage signifies the lake’s edge in the second of two acts, as Peter and Kari sit together to work through the painful processes of memory, regret, and moving forward.

Emma Watt, Princeton University junior, has directed this production with taste and intelligence. The action moves swiftly, the interweaving movements of Peter, Kari, and the narrator are smooth and meaningful. Comic, serious, and romantic elements of the play all receive appropriate emphasis.

The pavilion that gives its name to this play is nothing more than an old dance hall, waiting to be torn down and replaced by a sports-entertainment complex, but that pavilion, holding many memories of high school dances of the past, resembles the past itself in its fragility and ephemeral nature.

“And so we have to say yes to time,” the Narrator reminds Peter near the end of the play, “even though it means speeding forward into memory, forgetfulness, and oblivion. Say “no” to time; hold on to what you were or what she was; hold onto the past, even out of love … and I swear it will tear you to shreds. This universe will tear you to shreds.”

The Pavilion, acclaimed by one critic as ”an Our Town for our time,” does indeed share many themes and concerns with Thornton Wilder’s 1938 American classic. Small town life, simple truths, and familiar romantic material predominate in both works. Our Town may provide a richer panorama of the world it depicts, but The Pavilion benefits significantly from its condensation, with only three actors instead of twenty-three, a more trenchant edge to the humor, and the entertaining virtuosity of Mr. Wright’s narrator, who must play all those other roles by herself.

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