Every playwright strives to convey more than a single quality, but each, sooner or later, becomes known for a house specialty: Some writers dispense charm, some offer provocation, some convey somber tragedy or tickling amusement. Craig Lucas, whose plays have at one time or another touched on all of the above qualities, has become our leading supplier of trouble—I mean that, I hurriedly add, in the highest sense of the word. The play that annoys you most is the one you’re least likely to forget, and Lucas’s plays annoy for better reasons, from deeper convictions, and with longer-lasting effect than those of any living writer I can think of, except perhaps Albee. You may find one of his works delightful or infuriating—I’ve had both reactions—but they stay with you.
His plays are of our time in always seeming to have something “wrong” about them: Lucas’s dramaturgy, crisscrossed and gnomic, is a map of the unsteady ground we live on. His fairy tale comedies have a dark, troubling undertow; his thrillers turn out to be built on a creeping intellectual quicksand. Both resonate with weird echoes of contemporary issues that seem not to be germane but always are. The Lucas plays that look most complex at first glance often turn out to be simplest; the straightforward ones often require a lot of mental unpacking.
Though dense, Small Tragedy is as simple as a Lucas play gets: A director pulls a group of strangers together to put on his version of Oedipus (a semi-amateur production, in Boston). As they struggle through the rehearsals and performances, connections form, revelations are spilled, alliances and professional successes are made, tested, and broken. Simple, you think: humor and pathos alternating in a standard pattern, maybe garnished with a few dreamy-eyed speeches about the value of art. Ha. For Lucas, Oedipus is not just a cultural icon but an object of meaning; Small Tragedy is like an attempt to scramble Oedipus‘s resonance for our society with the fun of The Torch-Bearers and the moral probing of a war crimes documentary. Let’s not forget the Chekhovian pathos, either; this is a “small” tragedy about ordinary people. With so much on the playwright’s mind, no wonder his characters’ favorite mode of conversation is the simultaneous. For all its littleness and taut focus, Small Tragedy is a barrage of scenes played against each other, its dialogues sliding from one group of characters to another, or from one scene into another happening weeks or months later. It’s a painting so thickly impastoed that every angle offers a different image.
The linchpin of Small Tragedy is Hakija (Lee Pace), an economics student cast as Oedipus, who turns out to be both a better actor than his theatrical-wannabe colleagues, and a walking trigger for emotional disruptions. A self-declared Bosnian refugee (the time is the mid ’90s) and “Muslim atheist,” he gives varying, often contradictory accounts of his past experiences, which his more straightforward American colleagues accept at face value. (Certain aspects of the character evoke thoughts of Jerzy Kosinski.) Like Oedipus, Hakija ultimately has to confront a hideous truth about himself, and the catastrophe in which he is compelled to do so comes from an elaborate chain of events that involves—and alters—everyone else. If the immediate upshot is less than tragic, its later consequences might be bleak indeed: We don’t know which aspects of the past will leave their mark on the future. The rehearsing actors’ running debate about the meaning of Oedipus keeps reminding us that we can never be sure if our destinies are determined by our own choice or some external tragic plan.
A piece that can embody such disturbing ideas so effectively deserves a lot of leeway, and I feel like a heel for complaining, but Lucas has stretched his schema almost to the breaking point. Several aspects of Hakija’s story, and many other aspects of the narrative, don’t parse convincingly; that I can’t say more without spoiling the play’s effectiveness is itself a criticism: Small Tragedy is both overplotted and plot-driven, in ways that often turn factitious. Still, it’s so full of interest, intelligence, amusement, and spine-chilling verity (some in the form of undiluted Sophocles), that it ranks substantially higher than most new plays even after you’ve marked it down for its defects. It’s a play to see and ponder, staying with you, in typical Lucas fashion, long after you leave the theater.
It’s even good enough to survive Mark Wing-Davey’s production, a maddening mixture of enormous virtues and niggling defects seemingly designed to get in their way. Pace, utterly transformed from his arresting debut in the same theater’s Credeaux Canvas two years ago, is superb; the largely first-rate supporting cast features Ana Reeder, haunting as his devoted Jocasta, and a devastating performance by Mary Shultz as the director’s live-in nemesis. Presumably having worked hard to shape these distinctive portraits, Wing-Davey clumps them together in often confusing blocking, on an awkwardly elaborate ground plan, murkily lit and blizzarded with his trademark media clutter. The latter is used to make points that, though relevant, hardly need making. We already know that Americans anesthetize themselves with media; we came into the theater to get away from it.