What is the Cause of Thunder? by Noah Haidle. Directed by Justin Waldman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Wendie Malick and Betty Gilpin; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Betty Gilpin and Wendie Malick; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"Oh. . .And God died."
In the opening scene of Noah Haidle’s new play, now having its world premiere on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ada the actress, in her soap opera character, hears a litany of recent tragedies spouted by an oddly anti-devout nun in full habit. Ada’s character has been praying hard before being interrupted by the other woman who bemoans the burning nursery, the animals let loose from the zoo, the coma-restricted daughter of Ada’s character and finally, after enumerating the number of times Father O’Brien has touched young boys in "those places", the fact that, oh by the way, God is dead. The God Ada has been praying to devoutly, seeking help, answers, and salvation. The nun then makes a spectacular exit after making a few more revelations. The scene is hilarious because we do not know anything about these people or the situation in which they find themselves.
In fact the whole "soap opera" reality theme of this play is presented slowly in the scene that follows. Ada at home with her pregnant daughter seems to be still caught up in the drama of her day at prayer, her day at work. It takes more than a few minutes to reveal the next level of reality. Ada and her single, but very pregnant daughter Ophelia, share an apartment. Ada treats the girl more like a servant than a relation and there are instant parallels to a similar situation in another play about a soap opera star, "The Killing of Sister George." As in "George" there is an angelic and inspiring aspect to Ada’s character’s character (later on we learn she has murdered at least three people including her only son as an infant). Also as in George, the actress lives with an attractive younger woman (a daughter here, a lover/mistress there). In both cases the girl has a very childish aspect - in "George" she is even called "Childy."
Also, in both plays the star is about to get the axe. The death of a popular character to shore up the slipping ratings of a TV soap opera lies at the bottom of the motivations in both plays. There the similarities really do end, although a bit of reflective Shakespeare now and then crop up in the two plays as well.
This ninety minute one-act play feels like a one-act play grown long. In spite of excellent work by two dynamic actresses the play wears itself down long before it comes to an end. Tedium strikes the final chords as Ada slips back into a madness that has overtaken her before if we can believe the dialogue between daughter and mother. Her levels of reality have been sorely tested, from the start, and her inability to identify away from her Television identity is taking over her natural thought processes. The imminent birth of her granddaughter saves a moment of sanity, but we can tell that her "resurrection" is about to be a masterwork of self-deception.
Wendie Malick plays Ada with all the bravura gestures and vocal mechanics she used in her role of former super-model on "Just Shoot Me," a television series that ran for several years and truly brought her talents to light. She played a character there who was bigger than life and less capable than the truly living. It was a fun character, a guaranteed laugh getter and she reprises many aspects of that woman in Ada. Here she takes things a few steps further down the path to self-deception and madness. Here, while she is fun as she acts her "part," she is devastating as she plays her primary character. It cannot be easy for an actress whose success has depended on characters such as Ada to dissect such a woman and present her literally inside-out for all to see. Malick succeeds on every level even without the slightest faint hope of salvation as the outcome of Ada’s life.
We easily see Ada’s meaner aspects even while applauding her talents. We admire her use of all that is theatrical to overcome her own shortcomings in her real life relationships with her parents, her absentee husband and lovers, her ever-present daughter whose own phobic hallucinations bring about a fake engagement and a non-existent wedding. The one thing we do not really do is sympathize with Ada’ s deeper problems and that comes not from the actress’s inability to bring us that place, but with the playwright’s unfortunate mistake in not providing her the means to do so.
Betty Gilpin plays Ada’s daughter Ophelia and also her TV daughters, twins, wheel-chair-bound Harper (when not in a coma) and evil Bathsheba, recently released from prison for impersonating an oral surgeon. Gilpin also plays every other character we see in the play including the nun, and the son who was buried alive as an infant. She manages to make these characters wonderfully different. She is so good at it, and with very quick costume, wig and voice changes, that there were a few instances in which I had to squint hard to be certain that a ringer hadn’t been sent in. She is a very talented actress who can make whining into something with a smattering of charm.
Clearly Justin Waldman has worked hard to make this play work as well as it does. Not even a talented director, however, can compensate for the script’s short-comings. A proposed fifteen minute intermission was cut prior to opening and that was a wise decision here as many of the audience might not have returned for a second act.
The set is Broadway bound, even if the show may not make it there. It is big, wonderful and fun to watch. Designed by Alexander Dodge, it is a very impressive piece of theater all by itself, but here it is ably supported by the excellent lighting design created by Jeff Croiter. Nicole V. Moody’s costumes so perfectly suit each of the characters in this play that the reality of all of Gilpin’s people is established almost by look alone.
This is an odd one, indeed. Worth seeing for the physical production and the two actresses, but don’t expect a completely satisfying evening of theater...or television. And, Oh, if God is dead, it’s probably just a little bit due to this play. Neither of those just mentioned concepts works for me, however. Neither does the play.
What is the Cause of Thunder? plays on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 2. The theater is located in the ‘62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street (Route 2), Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.