In the "good old days" of 1999, before the dot-com meltdown, Seattle was one of the epicenters in a global eruption of unparalleled corporate extravagance. It was a place of instant gratification and outrageous expectations; where you could order entire shopping carts worth of groceries online and have them delivered to your doorstep, where noveau riche "Microsoft millionaires" filled their cantilevered Lake Washington view homes with Italian granite and Chihuly glass sculptures, and where even those on the bottom of the corporate ladder dreamt of multiple-split stock options. This was the era of WTO riots and thwarted millennial terrorist attacks, of the rise of Amazon and Starbucks and their accompanying promise of unrestrained wealth and conspicuous consumption brilliantly satirized by Seattle-based British ex-patriate author Jonathan Raban in his 2003 novel, "Waxwings", which has been adapted for the stage by frequent Book-It Repertory contributor Julie Beckman to open their 15th season.
Adapting a work of literature for theatrical presentation is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is that there is always much that by necessity falls by the wayside in moving "from page to stage". Beckman, who has penned a half-dozen works for the company, is mostly successful in this turn, although readers familiar with Raban's rich narrative and descriptive prose may feel her treatment here is somewhat perfunctory. Still, once the ear becomes adapted to Book-It's peculiar "dramatic narrative" presentation style, the script, while a bit clunky and slow to start at first, and perhaps somewhat too dependent on name-dropping local landmarks and institutions from the period (granted, often to humorous effect, as when the protagonist, a professor of English Literature (Terry Edward Moore) tries to lecture a twenty-something delivery person about the implications of working for a service called "MyLackey.com" - which actually existed for a couple of years), she gradually pulls the audience into Raban's contemporary "through the looking glass" world of self-absorbed academics, obsessed online entrepreneurs, and Horatio Alger inspired illegal immigrants.
Beckman wisely limits her focus to the triad of characters that make up the narrative core of "Waxwings": Tom Janeway (Moore) is a Hungarian-born, English-raised writer teaching Victorian Studies at the University of Washington, who floats through life on a cloud of ivory towered ego-centrism. His wife, Beth (Teri Lazzara) is an up-and-coming executive for a dotcom start-up with the preposterous (but nonetheless plausible) appellation, "GetAShack.com". Where Tom sees only conjugal bliss in his relationship with Beth and their "four and three-quarter year-old" son, Finn (Jason Woodbury), things aren't nearly as rosy as he thinks. Driven to succeed in the cutthroat online world, Beth views his self-absorption as an impediment to their marriage. When Tom holds her up as an object of mild ridicule in one of his Andre Codrescu-ish NPR commentaries, she gets fed up and opts out; leaving Tom alone in a crumbling Queen Anne house with no clue as to what went wrong. Meanwhile, "Chick" (Sam Lai) a Chinese immigrant escapes capture after being released from the putrefying bowels of a Seattle-bound cargo ship, and begins negotiating his own treacherous ascent up the ladder of The American Dream. He eventually crosses paths with Tom, and the two develop a sort of ersatz familial relationship that fills an emotional void in both their lives
Director Mary Machala has her hands full juggling all the various incidents, characters, and narrative stretches, and although she is perhaps a little too conservative at the beginning, eventually she hits her stride near the end of the first act, when Tom becomes a "person of interest" in a criminal investigation. Although she downplays the novel's shift in tone from mild satire to murder mystery, she manages to keep a certain balance between darkness and light, playing into our own feelings of ambivalence about the eventual burst of the dotcom bubble. Helped enormously by Scenic Designer Jeff Cook's ingeniously devised multi-level set, and Brian Healy's machine gun rhythmic lighting effects, Machala achieves a steadily increasing sense of events approaching a precipice of both promise and peril - one that Tom will manage to stop just short of falling into, while Beth and her stressed out colleagues blindly careen out into empty air, and one that "Chick", in the manner of a Dickensian rags-to-riches protagonist will leap across to alight safely on the other side. The ending, an almost verbatim recitation of Raban's final few paragraphs is rendered in a stunningly cogent interpretation that elaborates on the metaphorical description of the feeding habits of a flock of waxwings in a way that is only hinted at on the page.
As the blithely unaware academic, Moore possesses the proper air of British superciliousness, at least until events prick his bubble of smug self-assurance, whereupon he easily transitions into the Kafkaesque anti-hero awash in a rising sea of dread and uncertainty. Lazzara gets somewhat shortchanged by the script, losing several key scenes in which would have helped to round out her character, but she gamely plays the hand she's been dealt, and turns in a strong performance, particularly in the office scenes with her willing-to-go-any-length assistant, and with a neighbor who is willing to believe the worst about Tom's activities (the always watchable George Mount and Kelly Kitchens respectively). Lai does a good job of tracking the rapid rise of "Chick" from literally "fresh off the boat" newcomer, to improbably successful free-lance building contractor (even in the novel, his one-upsmanship of his former boss, (James Dean) smacks of a deus ex machina outcome), and he gets a lot of comic mileage out of at first mangling, then later studiously imitating American slang mannerisms.
Book-It excels in assembling strong ensembles, and the supporting cast in "Waxwings" is no exception. Mount has a nice feature turn as a harried police detective, while Kitchens, somewhat underutilized in this production (as is her otherwise dependable castmate Kathy Hsieh), is equally effective as Beth's suspicious neighbor, as well as the cloyingly pretentious wife of GetAShack's CEO (an intense, charismatic Ray Gonzalez). Dean, a long-time Book-It regular is suitably smarmy as "Mr. Don", the unscrupulous marine contractor who first takes "Chick" under his wing. And Brandon Whitehead, who can steal a scene with nothing more than a glance, a well-timed pause or a slow burn turns in another tiny gem of a performance as a lawyer with aspirations of starting his own radio call-in show.
Book-It's uniquely styled productions tend to be rather hit-and-miss; some works of literature just seem more suited than others to their selectively literalist performance aesthetic. "Waxwings" is perhaps the most recently published work ever adapted by the company, and while far from being a perfect, does hold up better than many. And anything that encourages further reading of Raban's work is a blessing in itself.
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