As a motivation in drama, revenge lacks subtlety. Cunning it may be, and passionate, of course. But nothing that demands unswerving commitment can be described as nuanced. From Aeschylus to Webster, tragedians have dramatized the simplistic and self-warping nature of retributive murder. In addition to causing more practical harm than good, an eye-for-an-eye ethic blinds one to the essential ambivalence and moral contradictions of being human. It’s hard to imagine a more potent emblem of vengeance’s ravaging power than Toshiko Takeuchi’s Clytemnestra, the paralyzed queen of Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki’s Electra, which appeared in repertory with his Oedipus Rex at the Japan Society. Cackling with villainy by day, Clytemnestra (like her theatrical descendant Lady Macbeth) suffers debilitating attacks of conscience at night, when her defenses are down and the furies’ invisible savagery can sneak into her dreams.
Carted in by a dead-eyed nurse and decked in flashy Western garb, Agamemnon’s aged wife and killer tries to maintain the upper hand with her daughter Electra (a martially clad Yukiko Saito), whose identity has grown as rigid as her resolve to avenge her father’s death. While mom growls rationalizations for her bloody deeds, the young woman moves into a state of quaking repose. Electra waits for her brother to rectify her situation, though no man could match her brutal purpose. Following Hofmannsthal’s version of the Greek saga, Suzuki softens Orestes (Kenji Nagai) into a figure daunted by his own homicidal destiny. Like the chorus, he moves about in a wheelchair, though it’s clear from his slunk presence that he lacks their brash militarism and insulation from guilt.
Suzuki directs with the muscular stillness he is renowned for. A bare stage with a stone back wall becomes the medium for the interplay of Eastern and Western aesthetics, which are etched with the deliberateness of a woodcut. Transforming the royal grounds into a hospital ward, Suzuki choreographs wheelchair dances of shadowy grace that occasionally accelerate into frenetic foreboding. Midori Takada’s percussion adds to the escalating suspense, which has less to do with plot than with the unyielding course of interior doom.
Frozen in defiance as much as loyalty, Saito assumes postures reflecting Electra’s implacable will. Though her Spartan vigor contrasts with Clytemnestra’s guttural-cawing decrepitude, it’s impossible not to see the two women as versions of the same self-eviscerating theme. Electra’s controlled collapse to the ground after hearing the offstage shrieks of her mother and stepfather illustrate not only her longed-for relief but the spiritual deadening that’s already under way.
Once upon a time, name-brand actors looked to the theater for roles of genuine depth and complexity. These days HBO might provide more opportunities for Hollywood thesps on the lam from superficiality. Certainly, David Lindsay-Abaire’s candy-coated Wonder of the World offers its star, Sarah Jessica Parker, less profundity than her cable show, Sex and the City. (Parker’s series, in fact, gets the nod in both substance and style.) A young farceur with a dodgy menacing streak, Abaire holds the mirror up to nonsense, conjuring characters whose zaniness prevents them from truly responding to the bad things that eventually happen to them. Reality, of course, can reside comfortably in the ridiculous. Wonder of the World, however, lacks the courage of its lunatic convictions. More sappy than dangerous, it’s the kind of comedy that only a laugh track could love.
Lindsay-Abaire follows a similar formula to his absurdly overtouted Fuddy Meers. A young woman in a suspect marriage embarks on a picaresque journey clotted with kooks. Everywhere you look there’s another oddball trying to make you laugh with the force of their idiosyncrasy. Parker holds center stage as Cass Harris, a cutesy ninth-grade math teacher from Park Slope who decides to leave her straitlaced husband Kip (Alan Tudyk), who has a not-so-straight sexual fetish. Cass speaks almost exclusively in exclamation points, determined to live life to the fullest now that she’s slammed the door on her pervy marriage. That she heads straight for Niagara Falls indicates the paltriness of her imagination; that she befriends Lois (Kristine Nielsen), a wisecracking alcoholic whose suicide plan involves a pickle barrel and a watery tourist attraction, suggests that she may be overcompensating for her dullness.
Christopher Ashley’s relentlessly jaunty production presents an embarrassment of riches. The dream supporting cast includes Kevin Chamberlin as Cass’s new love interest, Marylouise Burke and Bill Raymond as the doddering detectives hired to keep an eye on Cass, and Amy Sedaris in a variety of bit parts that exploit her second-banana shamelessness. Parker, though, may have to take a few acting lessons to correct the cloying quality that’s crept into her delivery. Even when her character’s situation turns lethal (don’t ask!), she remains 100 percent adorable. (Her Sex and the City pals simply wouldn’t put up with it.) David Gallo’s rotating, coloring-book sets ultimately steal the show. But it’s no fun to report that Wonder of the World is upstaged by its own carpentry.