Fort Worth — Scene: You’re sitting in a Brooklyn-bound subway car filled with people of all ages, styles, ethnicity. You wonder, whimsically, why life has put you all together in this moment—and then suddenly, a musical comedy number breaks out. (Because life is like that in New York.) As everyone sings, dances and mingles, the connections reveal themselves. She’s your baby sister, long lost in a family mixup. He’s a mentor who will change your life. They are co-workers who knew your Dad—and have a decades-old message for you. Wow.
Steven Dietz’ This Random World isn’t that story. Almost all the play’s characters miss the connections they might have made with one another, and the story’s tangled strands stubbornly resist turning into a pretty bow at the end. Dietz’s subtitle for the work, (the myth of serendipity), says plenty about the playwright’s intentions.
Yet somehow, Random is likely to leave you feeling upbeat and oddly pleased with life—even a bit misty-eyed. How does Dietz do it? We ought to be exasperated that he won’t make his characters say the right word, pick up the phone, stay just a moment longer. They’re so tantalizingly close, scene after scene.
But Dietz, who teaches at the University of Texas, is having too much fun playing out his central idea, that in life “there are only accidents”—leaving all of us to make do with the random materials we’re given. He (and we along with him) watch these half-dozen characters from on high (like God himself, or maybe just a tennis umpire). And that’s part of the fun, that we see all the might-have-beens and how the jigsaw pieces could have come together. And then we find out how the characters bump along even without those narrowly missed life-changing moments.
Director Steven Pounders, back for his sixth season at Circle, has a definite knack for drawing out vivid, stick-with-you portraits of ordinary characters, as in Circle’s Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love) (2017) and A Bright New Boise (2013). This Random World is no exception.
The play’s inner circle of characters revolves around Scottie (Libby Villari), a frail but willful older woman with two adult children who worry about Mom. Daughter Beth (Desiree Fultz) wishes Scottie would seize the day and travel to the faraway places she’s wanted to see. Son Tim (Kyle Igneczi) says Beth would be even more anxious if their Mom actually did it. But Scottie isn’t telling her kids everything; instead, she confides in her friendly-but-amused aide, Bernadette (Crystal Williams), who promises to keep Scottie’s secrets.
Leading their own lives only a coincidence away from the others are Gary (Jovane Caamaño) and Claire (Catherine D. DuBord), a couple breaking up in a dreary diner; and Rhonda (Camille Monae), a perky young person who seems jazzed that her job might include greeting not just the living, but the…not.
In 90 minutes on an almost bare stage (Clare Floyd DeVries’ set design—a few benches, a diner booth—includes one very Zen element, a long, low wooden pallet that proves essential to a surprising special effect) the action takes us to icy peaks and exotic shrines, a hospital, a funeral home and yes, to that awful diner.
Until the very end, the scenes are a series of short duets: Scottie/Bernadette, Beth/Tim, Gary/Claire and so on. (A note: With one exception, the cast members are new to Circle, though not to North Texas audiences.) Fultz and Igneczi are funny and real playing a brother and sister with unsatisfying lives. She (Fultz plays Beth with a gritty determination) has decided to make her move; he’s still stuck “noodling” on his laptop and going nowhere. Igneczi’s Tim is itchy, attractive and aimless; something Beth says gets him moving, and both of them at different moments will cross paths with Gary, Rhonda, Claire and Bernadette—but significantly, not with their mother.
Villari is peppery and intense as Scottie, who sees the individual beauty in every sunrise—and has a fiercely held theory about how she’d do life differently if she could live it again. Too much certainty, she says, kept her from taking risks and having adventures. She wasn’t open to the random-ness of life. That’s about to change. Williams’ nurturing, calm Bernadette goes along with Scottie’s whims—but in convincing Scottie to do a good deed for someone Bernadette loves, she’s unstoppable. And Monae’s Rhonda is charming. Grieving over her mother’s death and a tense family situation, she still has an essentially happy view of life, and a heart open to what life will throw her in this Random world.
DuBord’s Claire shamelessly steals her first scene (Best Controlled-Rage Use of Knife and Fork), as she packs up a morsel of food at the suggestion of the guy who’s just dumped her. Caamaño’s Gary is quietly amusing trying to make a clean getaway. We’ll get a better feel for him in later scenes with other characters; to our surprise, he turns out to be something of a mensch.
Dietz makes us see, too, that though his characters miss most of the connections and moments we see as crucial, their lives still change, move, grow. Other random stuff fills in the gaps. All is not lost, perhaps the playwright’s point being: You can have an epiphany without serendipity. Will that fit on a button?
In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, slipping between 18th century and modern England, we find a theory that all the chaos and activity of the world can be run backwards and forwards in time—except for the original “heat” of the collision of events. Once spent, it never can be recaptured.
Perhaps that’s the bittersweet, emotional undercurrent we sense from This Random World, the reason we’re left a bit verklempt by the story. None of Dietz’ characters will ever know what they’ve missed…but we feel the lost heat and warmth of those almost-collisions, and yearn after it.
What might have been.
It’s kind of beautiful, kind of sad…and kind of fun.