NEW YORK -- "Recent Tragic Events" by Craig Wright is a gimmicky play of improbabilities, an unsatisfying dark comedy of chance built around the 2001 terrorist attacks.
If you think that's strange, the play also includes an appearance by prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates, portrayed here by a sock puppet. Well, a sock puppet charmingly manipulated by actress Colleen Werthmann. The puppet gets most of the laughs.
"Recent Tragic Events," which opened Sunday at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, is set very specifically on Sept. 12, 2001, in Minneapolis. Andrew, a nerdy book store manager amish Linklater), arrives for a blind date at the apartment of an attractive advertising executive named Waverly eather Graham of "Boogie Nights" and "Austin Powers" fame).
He's willing to call the whole thing off but she wants to keep the date. As Waverly gets ready, an unseen television set blares continuous news coverage of the attacks.
It's an unnerving backdrop for a budding romance, but Wright skillfully mines the nervous confusion between the two. Their shy, halting conversation sounds exactly right, particularly in Linklater's spot-on, dweebish performance.
Among other things, the twosome discover they have an affinity for the novels of Anthony Trollope. Waverly reveals she is related to Oates, who happens to be Andrew's favorite author. Then Oates, in the form of the puppet, shows up - her New York-bound plane diverted to Minneapolis because of the attacks.
Snaking through all these weird coincidences is a more somber story line. Waverly has a twin sister living in New York and no one has heard from her since the attacks. Could she have been in the World Trade Center when the planes hit?
Throughout the play, Waverly is on the phone, trying to locate her missing sibling. A sense of incipient tragedy permeates the evening.
If that weren't enough, Wright has artificially framed "Recent Tragic Events" with a bit of ominous pretension. The play begins with a "stage manager" announcing to the audience that the plot will be determined by the flip of a coin, which an audience member does. Heads or tails? Just who - or what - controls our destiny? The answers are never quite clear, particularly after a second-act surprise that scuttles this set-up.
Yet before that happens Wright has introduced the play's most annoying character, a strung-out musician who happens to be Waverly's best friend. He's plays with irritating loquaciousness by Jesse J. Perez.
"Recent Tragic Events" has been given an elaborate production, with a detailed living room set by designer Adam Stockhausen. Director Michael John Garces keeps the busy plot from lagging.
Yet despite the seriousness of some of its themes, "Recent Tragic Events" rarely connects. For one thing, Waverly's emotional fragility seems beyond Graham, who never manages to convince that she is on the verge of breaking down.
More importantly, Wright has cluttered his play with so many distracting theatrical devices that they make it difficult to pay attention to what he is trying to say.