What Comes Next
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 6, 2006
Pamela A. Popeson's fearless new play, What Comes Next, packs enough ambition and disparate plot threads for several plays: an ongoing imaginary friendship between its protagonist Julia, a wagon train trail guide, and the ghost of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant; a humorous one-scene-only appearance by the late country music superstar Tammy Wynette, showing her then-husband, country singer George Jones, how to use the amplifier he insists on speaking through; a man who uses the lyrics for Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" to help him defuse a bomb; even Marilyn Monroe and Chief Joseph make an appearance. There's no question that Popeson has a fertile imagination, but unfortunately, these enterprising and offbeat touches backfire, making What Comes Next into a very confusing show.
The plot follows Julia on what appears to be her final wagon train. Her longtime companion, Handsome Jack, announces that he's moving to Canada for a more settled life after they reach their destination, which sends childless and unmarried Julia into a mid-life crisis of maelstrom-like proportions. Throughout she seeks advice from Grant and Chief Joseph, as well as her real-life sidekick, Jimbo, about how to face her scary, unknown future.
I think some of my confusion about What Comes Next stems from thwarted expectations on my part. The show's press release claims the story takes place "on the wagon train trail in the latter days of the Westward Expansion," so, I figured I'd be seeing a more traditional Western set in the late 1800s. But, Julia, Jimbo, and Handsome Jack are outfitted in modern garb, and there are numerous indications throughout the script that the play takes place in the present. Okay. I didn't know the Western Expansion was still going on. But several members of Julia's wagon train are dressed from different time periods, ranging from the late 1800s to modern safari gear. I assume that Popeson's mixing of different eras is meant to serve a thematic purpose, but I was never clear about what it was.
I was also uncertain about some of Julia's relationships with the other characters. Popeson doesn't spell anything out for the audience, but instead leaves it up to them to figure things out. I didn't know Julia had a significant other at the outset: I just figured she and Jimbo would eventually hook up because their behavior around each other indicated as much. And why is she talking to both Grant and Chief Joseph? I must admit that Julia's conversations with both men provide What Comes Next with some of its best moments (in fact, Grant gets the evening's best line, replying to a query about what it was like to be president: "It was a fucking nightmare. Why do you think I drank?"), but Popeson never reveals why she's chosen those two figures as her heroine's sounding boards.
There are also a number of tentatively introduced subplots that never dovetail back to the main story, including Jimbo's sudden, out-of-the-blue courtship of Prudence, another woman on the trail; a group of unknown terrorists who are tracking the wagon train (early on, Julia is gunned down at point blank range, only to rise back up and reveal that her western fringe vest is made of Kevlar); and the nebulous George-and-Tammy (personally, my favorite in the entire show, but, unfortunately, apropos of nothing). Popeson has a lot of good material here, but trying to cram it all into the same play steers What Comes Next right off course.
Lorca Peress's direction seems as lost as I was. Her efforts appear to be both governed and stymied by Robert T. Cooke's main set piece, a wall on which an endless stream of distracting and unnecessary video images are projected. Scene and light changes, and physical movements, are seemingly never in synch with these images, and there are many times when the disparity brings the production to a screeching halt.
This is too bad, because there's some good acting on display here. Dan Teachout and Stephen Clarke are both genuine and convincing as Jimbo and Handsome Jack, respectively. Daniel Hicks and Tanya Perez are both excellent in a variety of roles, as are most of the cast. Unfortunately, Marin Gazzaniga missteps as Julia, playing her as if she only has one emotion: indignant. (This is also a fault of the writing.) With only this one aspect of Julia visible to us, and unchanging for almost the entire play, there is nowhere for her character to go emotionally or dramatically.
Most puzzling of all is that I never had a grasp on what I thought Popeson was trying to say. With this much going on, I think it's safe to assume that she has a point to make. Whatever it is, it gets lost in the muddle. I hope Popeson's next effort has a more streamlined focus than What Comes Next. It's clear that she has plenty of ideas to choose from.