The Burning Coal Theatre Company, located at the Murphey School in downtown Raleigh, opened a series they call “Wait Till You See This” with Wonder of the World, a complex and somewhat absurdist comedy written by David Lindsay-Abaire in 2000 and premiered in New York the following year. In the severe artistic doldrums of August, it is a welcome theatrical oasis to have one of Burning Coal’s excellent productions present a nearly two-week run in their intimate space.

The action begins in a room in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we meet Cass (Kathryn Le Trent) packing a suitcase while we hear a TV blaring in the background. She is surprised by the midday appearance of her husband Kip, who has come home for lunch bearing aspic (yuck!) and flowers. Cass informs him that she is leaving him, that she was leaving a note to say that and does not want to discuss why or anything else. Armed with a lengthy bucket list for disturbed but physically healthy thirty-somethings and a small suitcase, she heads for the Port Authority to begin her new adventure. A rapid scene change – done by the actors as well as stage hands – finds us on a bus where Cass meets – or more correctly practically impales herself on – Lois (Olivia Griego), an alcoholic who is carrying on her lap the tool for her suicide: a barrel that she intends to crawl in to go over Niagara Falls. Thus we begin the adventures of this severely dysfunctional Thelma and Louise-type characters.

The remainder of the story takes place in and around Niagara Falls: a hotel room, the Maid of the Mist tour boat, a restaurant, and even a helicopter. Along the way we meet Captain Mike (Kevin Ferguson), with whom Cass has sex – as just one more thing to cross off on her “to do” list; and Karla and Glen (Jan Morgan and Al Singer), a married couple who are newly-employed private investigators hired by Kip to track down Cass. Joining in the fun is an eclectic and bizarre set of different characters, all played with great comic finesse by Amy Bossi-Nasiatka. The highlight of the first act – and one of the best pieces of sketch comedy I have ever seen – is a scene in a tour helicopter between Cass, Lois, and the pilot, played by Bossi-Nasiatka. It is here that we learn the reason Cass is leaving Kip: I’ll just say that it is a sexual fetish involving Barbie dolls.

Throughout the first half, the dialogue is crisp, funny, and somewhat believable, which makes it even more hilarious. The actors gave a sense of truly inhabiting their characters, and the direction and simple but effective sets added to what was one of the most entertaining half-evenings of theater I have recently experienced.

Then there was intermission and the second half. Whether it is your favorite sports team giving up a superbly played big lead in the final minutes or a musical performance fizzling out in the final work, it is very disappointing to see such a high level of art plummet to earth and almost negate what went before. To be fair to the actors and the entire company, I lay nearly all the blame directly on playwright Lindsay-Abaire, and I’m not sure that any of this can be corrected without major surgery to the second half script. What was a deft, fast moving, comically absurdist situation turned into preachy, contrived and plodding dialogue, especially the penultimate, way-too-long scene that involved a marriage counselor dressed as a clown, a painfully embarrassing re-enactment of The Newlywed Game, an accidental murder, and completely unbelievable heartfelt monologues by several of the characters. You’ll probably read this and say, “Wow, that’s quite a stew of possibilities!,” but for the first time that evening, I was painfully aware that this was in a deep ditch and AAA was unavailable.  

There is a great deal to like here, but pacing plays a central part in any production and Wonder of the World simply peaks too early, followed by a very precipitous fall. Having said that, I would still heartily recommend a drive to Raleigh to see this play – and particularly if  you have never been to Burning Coal Theatre. There is something quite special about experiencing theater where you are quite literally right on top of the action. All of the actors aptly blocked out the audience even when we were merely inches away: not an easy feat. Plus, if art does imitate life, is there anyone who can say that they are leading a perfect life?  

This show continues through August 14. For details, see the sidebar.