Eighth Wonder

In a better world, Alicia Sutton would appear on stage constantly. She'd be handed her Actors' Equity card, given her choice of roles, and would perform in a different production each month for one of our 70-odd local theater companies. She'd do Hedvig in The Wild Duck, and Nickie in Sweet Charity, and Amanda in Private Lives. She'd turn up as Adriana in A Comedy of Errors, and sweep the Zonies, or whatever the local theater awards program is calling itself these days.

In the real world, Sutton works only occasionally. Her playbill credits mention small productions of lesser-known plays, the kind that one has to stumble upon because they're produced by troupes too small to afford advertising. As luck would have it, this is one of those months when Sutton is working, playing the frenzied lead in David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World for Stray Cat Theatre. As ever, Sutton tears into her performance with a frantic energy, her great saucer eyes rolling, her voice cracking in a comic bawl -- she's a manic Muppet come to life, a young, undiscovered Fanny Brice for the *NSYNC age.

Wonder of the World is the perfect vehicle for Sutton's scene-swiping talents. Lindsay-Abaire's 2001 comedy concerns Cass, an unhappy housewife who ditches her sweet-tempered but sadly twisted husband, Kip, after she discovers his revolting (and hilarious) sexual secret. She takes off in search of the life she suspects she was meant to have. Her new goals include wearing overalls, eating venison, witnessing an execution by lethal injection, and having a sidekick. She settles on Lois, a drunk who's also left her husband and plans to kill herself by sailing over Niagara Falls in a pickle barrel. They're being tailed by Karla and Glen, husband-and-wife private eyes hired by Kip to find Cass and bring her home -- but not before we attend a reenactment of The Newlywed Game officiated by a marriage counselor dressed as a clown.

This is a comedy with teeth; a bitter farce crammed with jokes about suicide, lesbians, the space shuttle Challenger, and kinky sex. Lindsay-Abaire's people are monstrous cartoons, struggling with matrimony and trying to make sense of a world where coincidence can overtake you and fate always trumps the best-laid plans. He's drawn caricatures of the sort of people who live in touristy towns like Niagara Falls -- scary folks in multicolored wigs; yarn salesmen who kill people by braining them with giant peanut-butter jars -- and written madcap dialogue that's as funny as it is mean ("I think I made a mistake." "When?" "You remember that time when you proposed to me and I said yes?"). Lindsay-Abaire keeps Act One afloat with a mystery -- what is Kip's scary secret? -- and after solving that mystery, treats us to a second act that's funnier than the first.

Sutton shines throughout, alongside some pretty formidable supporting players, most notably Neda Tavassoli, whose Lois is so amusing that I forgot to look for the serious meaning beneath all of Lindsay-Abaire's smart allusions while she was onstage. But it's Sutton who sustains our interest in what might have become a broadly drawn Lucy-and-Ethel shtick in lesser hands. Director Amanda Kochert wisely allows Sutton to plumb our affection for Cass late into Act Two, when she's done everything she can to make us hate her. When we should be jeering Cass's crass choices and callous sarcasm, we're still rooting for her -- because she's brought to life by a terrifically witty actor whose performance defies us to look away.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela