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First Nighter: In the Wake, Lisa Kron's New Play, Has What It Takes

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The playwright Lisa Kron and director Leigh Silverman -- who most recently collaborated on Kron's Tony-nominated Well -- along with actors Marin Ireland, Deirdre O'Connell, Jenny Bacon, Michael Chernus, Susan Pourfar and Danielle Skraastad have all done notable New York stage work over the last however many years. Their previous efforts, however, seem mere finger exercises now that the crew has combined their impressive talents -- with newcomer Miriam F. Glover -- for In the Wake, Kron's astonishing latest work.

The opus -- destined for many awards -- is the kind of comedy-laced drama that sends audiences staggering into the streets for its shifting-tectonic-plates power to shake up previous assumptions about the requirements needed for leading a fulfilling political and personal life. At least, that's the effect it had on this I-can-usually-take-anything-in-stride aisle-sitter as it followed socially concerned Ellen (Ireland) as she comes to realize her immediate world is imploding more rapidly than the planet about which she's so constantly agitated.

An activist whose exact job or jobs Kron never specifies, Ellen initially sees herself as too volatile a social critic for the friends who surround her -- easy-going and loving partner Danny (Chernus), his earnest sister Kayla (Pourfar). Kayla's no-nonsense wife Laurie (Skraastad), and chum Judy (O'Connell), a human-rights worker terminally hopeless about her duties helping the third-world underprivileged.

But Ellen's uncontrollable temper about the issues endlessly disturbing her is the only problem she'll cop to -- and one she feels comfortable justifying during many harangues about the dire events taking place between 2000 and 2005, when the play is set. It's only on one of the frequent travels she makes to sit on a panel or some such career requirement that Ellen meets the situation resulting in her loss of all moorings. Heretofore heterosexual but with two same-sex dalliances in her past, she meets and falls in love with Amy (Bacon), a filmmaker whom she knew in childhood.

At first, Ellen believes she can successfully juggle her relationships with Amy and Danny. Deeply enamored of him and just as deeply aware of his profound devotion to her though they have no interest in marriage, Ellen nevertheless says to Judy about the Amy attraction, "I literally felt something unlock and open -- like a whole part of me I didn't even know existed." Kron understands, though, that in these too familiar contemporary circumstances, someone always gets hurt. As Danny, clearly wounded, finally declares, "You have to choose, Ellie. You don't have to choose me, but you have to choose."

Interrupting her gathering travails to fill the audience in on the blind spot (read, conscious or unconscious denial) she senses in her behavior, Ellen tries to find an explanation for it. As she's trying, she's also caught up in the complicated lives of her pals. Kron seizes that opportunity to present numerous lively, often disturbing but always thoroughly recognizable sequences.

There's the one where Ellen finds it difficult to accept the decision Kayla makes to give up writing in favor of organization-management schooling. There's the one, after 9/11, where Judy's mixed-race ward Tessa (Glover) visits and is thrown when, as a young girl raised in the impoverished South, she has trouble taking in that Kayla and Laurie are wed but Ellen and Danny aren't.

Each of the many scenes in which Kron has the principals attempt to sort their differing views -- Laurie truly tires of the opinions Ellen can't stop voicing -- is perceptively realized. In perhaps the most riveting, Ellen is startled to learn that Judy not only hasn't voted for John Kerry in 2004 but, indeed, never votes. Explaining her reasons at the start of a lengthy tirade, Judy, heated, proclaims, "I don't want to participate in a system I don't believe in."

The ensuing rapid-fire exchange could take on the aspect of an Oxford Union debate (not unlike other confrontations in Kron's diatribe), but because Ireland and O'Connell completely assimilate their characters' convictions, it's anything but. Not surprising, since the pair are as accomplished as any actresses currently working regularly in Manhattan. Ireland may be as good as her idol Julie Harris was in her heyday. Her non-stop physicalizing every moment -- as people afflicted with floating anxiety do -- is breath-taking.

O'Connell -- already the recipient of a Village Voice Obie for sustained achievement -- also takes a back seat to no one. The defeated posture, the constant smoking from which Judy derives no pleasure are the hallmarks of first-rate performing.

The other cast member eddying around them -- on the set David Korins has designed as a not-quite-shabby apartment -- are flawless, too. Chernus, with his lank shoulder-length hair, effectively presents a man who never seems weak even as he goes along until he no longer can. Bacon's Amy, astounded at finding a woman she can love after long believing she never would, is beautiful to watch -- just as observing her lose that love is painful. Pourfar, Skraastad and Glover fill their lines with aching credibility.

Just before In the Wake ends in as devastating a fade-out as imaginable, Ellen dolefully clarifies the meaning of Kron's title. It won't be revealed here, but what Kron leaves in her roiling wake is a remarkable new American play.