World Gone Wrong
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 4, 2005
The sheer size, scope, and ambition of Ian W. Hill's vision in World Gone Wrong dazzles and boggles. Who does this guy think he is, putting a 2-part, 34-scene, 21-actor epic blend of film noir and contemporary political commentary onto the tiny Brick Theater stage? Well, if you're a fan of Hill's work (as I have been for nearly a decade now), then you know that he is PRECISELY the guy to do this. A true master of the experimental and the economical, Hill relies on spectacularly committed artists (such as: everyone in his cast, costume/makeup/hair consultant Yvonne Roen, and technical director Berit Johnson) and his own unwavering and brilliant vision to create theatre that delights and challenges and jolts even as it prods and pokes at its audience. The Moral Values Festival has at least one bona fide smash hit on its hands.
World Gone Wrong—which is actually just the title of Part One of this extravaganza, the second being "Worth Gun Willed"—tells the story of a private eye named William Mist who is trying to solve the mystery of who killed him. The weapon is a slow-acting poison and so he has some time to try to uncover the bad guy (or gal); and if that runs out, his dedicated partner Ned Daley isn't going to rest until the crime is properly avenged. The story unfolds in flashbacks inside flashbacks, with facts about Mist and the gritty denizens of a vintage pulpy New York/Los Angeles underworld uncovered a few at a time until the whole dastardly scenario is out in the open.
Every word of World Gone Wrong comes from someplace else. A fascinating program note tells us that almost all of the play's lines come from some 200 films, mostly classic film noirs of the '40s and '50s—you'll recognize some of them, like D.O.A. and Sunset Boulevard and The Killers and The Maltese Falcon. The fun, though, comes not from trying to identify the source material—the words fly past too quickly for that—but rather from hearing the heightened and overdone foolishness of this simile- and metaphor- laden prose, so neatly juxtaposed and concentrated: there are sections that are laugh-out-loud hilarious, the way that the first episodes of Twin Peaks were. Interspersed, often startlingly, are more current quotations from the likes of Donald Rumsfield and President George W. Bush. Hill's idea, I think, is to contrast the amoral surface/moral center of the noir genre with the moral platitudes/amoral center of today's political power establishment. It's jarring, if a shade subtle: I found myself almost wanting the thing to slow down so I could catch up with the ideas as they zoomed past.
Which is not to say that World Gone Wrong is hard to follow; far from it. The recognizable types are actually paraded in front of us in the play's stylish prologue, and because the evocations are so pitch-perfect in terms of visuals and attitude, we can peg them right away: the busybody drunk, the cheap dive waitress, the gangster's moll, the maniacal henchman, and so on. The actors lip-synch to their own pre-recorded voices as they recite their lines, pulled out of their original contexts and rearranged here to tell Hill's new, gripping tale. This is a lot harder than you might expect, and the cast members mostly pull it off with tremendous aplomb. Standouts include Fred Backus as the drunk, Josephine Cashman as the waitress, Maggie Cino as the moll, Debbie Troche as what the program describes as a faded spitfire, Bryan Enk and Josh Mertz as two of the goons, and Adam Swiderski and Hill himself as Daly and Mist. Ultimately form and content collide and then reinforce one another, creating a theatrical experience as dense as it is unique.
World Gone Wrong is part of an ongoing series called "Necropolis" that Hill has been working on since 2000. I will not miss any future installments. Meantime, catch this one.