BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
More than simply a contemporary drama about a nice, smart woman who inadvertently causes misery for herself as well as the people in her world, "In the Wake" provides a longer view of our changing national character during the years of George W. Bush's presidency.
Opening Monday in a very well-acted production at the Public Theater, "In the Wake" reveals writer Lisa Kron admirably stretching her dramatic craft in ways beyond her lovely comedy "Well" of 2004 and the earlier monologues that first brought her to notice.
Set in a pleasantly shabby East Village apartment, the story begins amiably as a thirty-something urban comedy as viewers are introduced to Ellen (Marin Ireland), her cuddly live-in boyfriend Danny (Michael Chernus) and their extended family that includes his sister Kayla (Susan Pourfar) and her partner Laurie (Danielle Skraastad) plus Ellen's "buzz-killer" older pal Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), a human rights worker.
It's Thanksgiving 2000 and dinner is in the works even as liberal-minded Ellen and chums react in dismay to the Florida election recounts on TV. The rather distracted Ellen is depicted as a positive if bossy and excitable personality who confidently believes she is doing the right thing.
Ambivalent about marrying Danny, Ellen later is drawn into an intense affair with Amy (Jenny Bacon) in Boston. As the play darkens, Danny and Amy suffer Ellen's want-it-all indecisiveness but eventually choices are made - for the worse. Friends depart. Damaging stuff happens.
These and subsequent developments are framed around the proscenium by periodic bursts of video footage showing events of the passing eight years such as Bush amid the World Trade Center rubble and the debate to invade Iraq. A devastating trip to the beach is preceded by news of Hurricane Katrina. Ellen's actions are meant to reflect our national willfulness and blind assurance in American values.
A deeply thoughtful and ambitious drama that concludes with a rueful new awareness, "In the Wake" is perhaps more successful at depicting Ellen's erroneous romanticism than in achieving the greater world view of the American mindset, but Kron duly makes her points.
Leigh Silverman's nicely-shaded direction and an excellent cast give the play much vitality. Ireland's blithely spirited Ellen remains a sympathetic protagonist who wises up too late. Initially droll as the dour aid worker, the invaluable O'Connell ultimately turns deadly serious when her disillusioned Judy finally tells off Ellen. The smoky-voiced Bacon seduces and suffers with burning desire. Set (David Korins), costume (Susan Hilferty) and lighting/projection design (Alexander V. Nichols) lend unassuming but top-of-the-line support to the Public Theater's solid production of Kron's deeply searching drama.
"In the Wake" continues through Nov. 21 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.