Random order: a trick of fate

Steven Dietz's "This Random World" opens up warm and rueful possibilities (and a few questions) at Portland Actors Conservatory

The question, if you really need to ask one, is this: What is the relationship between randomness and fate? Are they simply sides of the same coin, spinning back and forth in a universe in motion, teasing their onlookers with their brief appearances and near-misses, like streaking Halley’s Comets of human comprehension? Is it all coincidence, or none of it? And on a practical level, does it matter at all?

That is the subterranean (or stratospheric) territory of Steven Dietz’s This Random World, which was a hit last year when it premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and has just opened in its West Coast premiere in a swift and appealing production at Portland Actors Conservatory.

Kristin Barrett (left) and Tyharra Cozier in “This Random World.” PAC photo

The beauty of a good Dietz play is that it can explore such theoretical issues with both feet on the ground. Because he concentrates on structure, language, and character – that solid three-legged stool of the well-crafted play – the theme rises gently, tickling instead of pounding, like a wisp of afterthought that’s been carefully planted. And Dietz doesn’t answer his questions, which might help explain why, for all his regional-theater success, he’s never had a play on Broadway. He simply picks them up for closer inspection, and invites the audience in.

This Random World is about a small group of people, related biologically or accidentally (is there such a thing as an accident, or is that all there is?), whose worlds converge and mingle and move on. They’re tied, one way or another, to Scottie (the crisp and soft and generous-spirited Kathleen Worley), the supposedly reclusive matriarch, who is in fact an adventurous world traveler, a fact she keeps hidden for very specific reasons from her two grown children, bufuddled introvert Tim (a rumpled and quietly stubborn Jacob Beaver) and determined, death-obsessed Beth (Kristin Barrett, in a performance of deft comic hyperactivity that suggests a restless fear). Into their competing orbs are drawn a pair of sisters (Tyharra Cozier and Melissa Buchta), Christa Helms as the funny-appealing sad sack of a girl who got away, and John D’Aversa as a guy who really can’t quite figure anything out. The action moves from Tim’s apartment to a bad restaurant to the slopes of the Himalayas to a hospital corridor and a temple in Kyoto and a funeral parlor, and includes almost as many ghostly visitations as a Shakespeare tragedy or a Dickens Christmas tale. The play does all of this, in contradiction to its stated randomness, with an admirable sense of shape and purpose, and if all of the loose ends are not tied up (they are not), well, that’s the difference between a farce and a rueful human comedy: In real life, things are left unsettled and undone.

This Random World is directed by the conservatory’s producing artistic director, Beth Harper (Robert Bell is assistant director), and the production reveals her skill at creating ensembles, emphasizing the spaces between the actors, where the energy meets and the true action takes place. With its pauses and breaks and subtle movements the show is almost like a dance, with Dietz’s witty and sometimes searing dialogue only the visible tip of a rumbling underwater mountain. Part of the pleasure in this production is simply in watching craftsmanship take life. That holds true also for Max Ward’s handsome and adaptable set, which is built around sliding Japanese screens, and for the talented Sharath Patel’s nicely understated sound design. Harper designed the appropriate costumes, and lighting is by Larry Larsen.

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Steven Dietz’s This Random World continues through April 23 at Portland Actors Conservatory, 1436 S.W. Montgomery St. Ticket and schedule information here.

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