'Mr. Wolf': Theater Review
Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph's latest, premiering at South Coast Rep, takes a cosmic look at the fallout from an abducted child's return to her family.
If a 15-year-old girl tells you she’s never been to a store, and that she has only recently tasted chocolate for the first time, you might wonder where she’s been. And if she can recall cutting-edge theoretical astrophysics concepts the way other girls recall the lyrics to "Let it Go," you might think she’s a savant. In Rajiv Joseph’s confounding new mystery, Mr. Wolf, world-premiering at South Coast Repertory, Theresa (Emily James) is that girl.
A Pulitzer finalist for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Joseph displayed wit and originality with the surreal 2010 work that starred Robin Williams as the tiger on Broadway. The wry comedy of that play is nowhere to be seen in Mr. Wolf, a pitch-dark drama about a family reuniting. It begins with Theresa, a precocious, antic child with a firm grasp on concepts of the multiverse, duel existence and time as a construct, though she doesn’t have a very good idea of what a horse looks like. She has seen them in books, but never in real life. In fact, books are all she has ever seen since the age of three.
Theresa’s mentor, Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie), warns her that "the world is coming" and they will be separated. But she remains confident they will be reunited in a parallel universe. It might sound crazy, but physics has become her coping mechanism for a world full of cruel conundrums.
For suburban dad Michael (Jon Tenney), coping with the abduction of his daughter means a methodical approach to her recovery, codified into his own hallowed rule book. Divorced since the crisis, he has only one purpose in life, which unites him with his second wife, Julie (Kwana Martinez), a woman similarly coping with a missing child.
Once Theresa is recovered, she is examined by a doctor (de Lancie again), who bares a resemblance to Mr. Wolf, fulfilling her prediction that they would be reunited. Only he doesn’t recognize her. At this point, she would likely be held for psychiatric evaluation, but instead Joseph begs artistic license and has her remanded to Michael and her mother Hana (Tessa Auberjonois), who has flown down from Vancouver.
Conflict between Julie and Hana over the family’s changing dynamic requires greater development by the playwright, as does Hana’s attempt to reunite with Michael through blackmail. Though Mr. Wolf is polished in its broad strokes, including concept, plot, mystery and especially James’ accomplished performance, it remains hampered by underworked secondary and tertiary conflicts and characters.
Following Theresa’s disappearance, Hana gave up looking for her. While Michael refuses to forgive her, it was the only way she knew how to cope with the crisis — that and the $1 million reward she offered, which led to the tip that saved Theresa, a point Michael refuses to acknowledge. In an oversight by Joseph, it is also a point Hana somehow neglects to mention in her own defense.
As Theresa, James appears to be overacting at first. But we gradually realize her nervous energy is grounded less in her lively intellect than in a deep-seated fear, dormant but very much alive. As Mr. Wolf, de Lancie summons an avuncular calm that neatly complements the hyperactive Theresa. A professor of astronomy at the local university, he is an intellectual who has given the girl the tools she needs to accelerate in astrophysics. He has cultivated her artistic impulses as well, as the massive chalk mural of galaxy Z8GND5296 colorfully illustrates on the folding blackboard that forms the backdrop of Nephelie Andonyadis’ savvy set for Mr. Wolf’s study. By contrast, the wall in Michael’s living room has only two adornments, a portrait of Theresa and another of Julie’s missing child, Casey.
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As Michael, Tenney is a convincing man on a mission, but struggles to fill out the thin role as written by Joseph. The character of Julie presents a similar problem for Martinez, who has no trouble channeling the overwhelming grief of a mother in her situation. And though Julie is a passive role, it affords Martinez a heartbreaking capitulation when she realizes that, with Michael’s quest for his daughter complete, and her own child still missing, the dynamic between them has fundamentally shifted.
Auberjonois portrays Hana with a brisk sense of entitlement commonly consigned to the wealthy. After years of estrangement, she aims to reunite with Michael and raise their daughter, but her predatory methods are illogical and run counter to her own interests.
Likewise hampered by the play’s underdeveloped aspects, director David Emmes struggles with scenes involving the supporting cast, but excels with those centered on Theresa. Customary to the genre, emphasis is placed on plotting over character, and Mr. Wolf includes a number of surprising twists. But Joseph cleverly compounds the mystery with our own struggles to understand the universe and our place in it.
Michael, Julie and Hana each have their distinct dogmatic way of dealing with the crisis. Whether their coping mechanism be faith-based or fact-based, each is searching for answers, just as we all are. But while Mr. Wolf represents a thoughtful and compelling addition to Joseph’s body of work, it will require further revisions to live up to its potential.
Cast: Emily James, John de Lancie, Kwana Martinez, Jon Tenney, Tessa Auberjonois
Director: David Emmes
Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
Set designer: Nephelie Andonyadis
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Costume designer: Leah Piehl
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Presented by South Coast Repertory