Clattering down the wooden steps into her basement, a woman named Angela is fleeing a storm. It’s a tornado, she says, talking to … herself? Nope, she’s talking to the audience. Are we meant to be in the basement with her? From our auditorium seats, it doesn’t feel remotely like we are.
Lauren Gunderson’s “Natural Shocks,” a monologue starring Pascale Armand in its world-premiere production for WP Theater, is an issue play that wants to be socially meaningful, with a would-be shocking ending that shatters the metaphor of the storm. I won’t give away that twist, though that also means I can’t say what the issue is, except that it is feminist.
If its storytelling worked, “Natural Shocks” would land potently on multiple levels. Yet this show, directed by May Adrales at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, contains vast stretches of tedium — the standard beige variety, not the provocative experimental kind. And its construction is awfully rickety.
“Did I mention this is a tornado?” Angela asks, shortly after telling us the first time. “Sorry,” she says. “I do that. I rush ahead. You’re like: ‘You said disaster but didn’t specify.’”
It’s a head-scratching repetition in the play’s opening minutes, and it made me wonder if Ms. Armand, a Tony Award nominee for “Eclipsed,” had messed up her earlier line. She hadn’t.
Ms. Gunderson is the most produced playwright in the United States in the 2017-18 season, according to American Theater magazine, which always takes Shakespeare out of the running so that someone else can win. “Natural Shocks,” unfortunately, won’t help to explain her popularity.
The storm is not the only thing here that’s heavy-handedly symbolic. Angela is an insurance agent who used to be a croupier. Risk is her métier. She collects dice, knows at least several deeply lame insurance jokes and blathers casually to us about her work.
It’s less than scintillating, and not terribly credible when a dangerous storm — or whatever has really driven Angela into the basement — is bearing down. Little wonder that Ms. Armand, who was shaky on some dialogue at the performance I saw, only occasionally finds ways to connect with the script.
The set designer, Lee Savage, has given Angela a neatly cluttered basement whose single cramped window glows with a thin, eerie yellow light (by Amith Chandrashaker) that is the precise color I have thought of since my Midwestern childhood as tornado sky. If only the text were as spot on in its execution of metaphor.
Very close to the end of this 75-minute play, Ms. Gunderson does a switcheroo that makes clear what’s really happening and who Angela’s listeners are meant to be. But that doesn’t erase the hour-plus that “Natural Shocks” spends flailing. The sudden, audible presence of a violent threat doesn’t automatically lend tension to the plot, or stakes to the life of a character we don’t believe.
The perverse narrative function of the menace stalking Angela is to swoop in like a deus ex machina, attempting in vain to rescue the play.
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Through Nov. 25 at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, wptheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
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