Reviewed by Terry Morgan
South Coast Repertory
Through May 3.
The things that are good about Rajiv Joseph’s new play Mr. Wolf outweigh the things that are misguided, enough that one hopes the author will use this world premiere to tighten the play’s focus and deepen its impact. The current production at South Coast Repertory benefits from an excellent cast and a veteran director in David Emmes, but other elements of the show, such as the set design, are somewhat lacking.
15-year-old Theresa (Emily James) has spent all of her life that she remembers with Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie), but as the story begins, that situation is coming to an end. The authorities are about to break into the house, and Theresa, after a lifetime confined to the inside of Wolf’s house, is going to have to adjust to the larger world. Meanwhile, Michael (Jon Tenney) and Julie (Kwana Martinez), two parents who have lost their children in separate abductions, decide to help each other in their possibly hopeless searches. When these two stories intersect, the results are not what any of the participants expect.
James is superb as the sad, bewildered Theresa, whose one piece of advice from Wolf was to constantly question everything to keep the world off-balance, and so she prods and queries and attacks to cover up her despair and fear. James excels in a scene where she cruelly hones in on Julie, demonstrating that Theresa isn’t just a saintly victim, but actually someone who’s been damaged and is capable of malice just like anyone else.
De Lancie is often cast as a mysterious, powerful figure, for the simple reason that he’s particularly good at that, and his performance as Wolf is no exception. Although Wolf doesn’t have a lot of onstage time, de Lancie makes it all count, humanizing an intriguing monster. Tenney does strong work as the single-minded Michael, and Martinez shines in her role, running the gamut of emotions as her character is put through any number of trials. Tessa Auberjonois ably completes the quintet as Michael’s ex-wife, Hana, portraying Hana’s surface selfishness and underlying humanity equally well.
Director Emmes gets outstanding work from the entire cast. A scene in which two parents circle a sleeping child, almost as if they were casting a spell of protection, only to be interrupted by a third person who gets a lot of information from this wordless act, is lovely in its subtlety. Mr. Wolf has one of the most striking opening scenes I’ve seen in a modern play, and the entire first act is strong and exciting. However, in the second act playwright Joseph takes away the focus from Theresa and puts more of it onto Michael and Julie, and while that material isn’t bad, this changing of perspective deflates the tension created by Act 1. The play cries out for more attention to Theresa and Mr. Wolf, though the production as it currently exists is nonetheless flush with vital, interesting moments.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA. Tues.- Sun. 7:45 p.m., Sat.- Sun. 2 p.m. through May 3. www.scr.org