A play within a play typically serves as guest commentator to its dramaturgical host, offering up expert opinion at precisely the right time. There's a play within the play in this collaboration between the Playwrights' Center and Hidden Theatre, but it's hard to say which is which. Oedipus the King is technically the "play within" Craig Lucas's Small Tragedy, but Sophocles' tragedy so thoroughly permeates Lucas's play that the new work feels like an extended commentary on the old one. It's like a long endnote, only without the pedagogy and with lots of jokes.
Small Tragedy, which is receiving its world premiere with this outstanding production, starts at the auditions for a mid-'90s community-theater production of Oedipus, directed by a profoundly unhappy couple on the rebound from a hapless sortie into Hollywood. Likable jerk Nate (Vincent Delaney) is a pompous auteur with a comically insincere way of delivering directorial clichés; his girlfriend and co-director, Paola (Amy McDonald), is an acid-tongued HIV-positive boozehound. Lucas's play travels through rehearsals, opening night, drunken cast parties, and a telling where-are-they-now? epilogue, leaving room along the way for extended passages from Sophocles.
Early on, Hakija (Brent Doyle, in a riveting performance that should rank with the year's best) studies his script as he waits to audition for the lead role. Fanny (the wonderful Maggie Chestovich, a bit over the top at times, but very funny), a jittery grad student who never leaves home without her flask, barges into the waiting room. She nervously tries to talk to Hak (as he is called in the play), who she learns is a Muslim refugee from Bosnia. "Isn't there, like, a sort of a war there?" she asks. Reluctantly, Hakija tells Fanny his wrenching tale of being abused and abandoned and kidnapped and returned to his ne'er-do-well mother. He's summoned to his audition in the middle of telling Fanny about the time his mom asked him to deliver a brown paper bag to his kindly onetime abductor. "Can I ask what was in the paper bag?" says Fanny breathlessly, as Hakija heads into the theater. "Oh, horseshit," he casually answers, "like the rest of the story."
Hak is thus established as either an insensitive prankster or a treacherous creep, and Lucas, with help from Oedipus, returns to a question he posed in 1988's Reckless: "Do you think we ever really know people?" (Short answer: No.) The truth about Hak's past remains mysterious. In rehearsal, though, the econ major with no theatrical training so completely embodies the ill-fated Oedipus that his colleagues reasonably suspect he is drawing on some intimate acquaintance with suffering and cruelty. While the other actors sleepwalk through their parts or deliver their lines in ludicrous mid-Atlantic accents, Hak's performance is effortless, his acting so natural that his costars sometimes think he's breaking character.
In Oedipus's initial denial of his heinous crime, Lucas finds parallels to American hubris and isolationism, referencing 9/11 without naming it (the play's action ends in 2000). The play also explores the universal tendency to "agree, together, not to see" the darkest realities, and even makes fun of itself for drawing these comparisons. "Can we just agree we're not going to try to make the fucking play relevant as if it isn't already?" asks Nate, the play's cranky conservative, "Give [people] the courtesy and respect of letting them make those connections."
Small Tragedy is a very good play if not a perfect one--my major beef is the clumsy and implausible way that Hak's secret is revealed. Fortunately, however, this flaw isn't crippling, and director Kip Fagan and a wonderful cast have ensured that Lucas's words are funny and pointed, tinctured with the gravity of tragedy but steered by the light hand of comedy. They even manage, with none of the discourtesy Nate cautions against, to make "the fucking play relevant."