Living a Lie 

Aurora Theatre's mordantly funny Small Tragedy.

How far will you go to protect something you care about — even if it means you have to live with a lie? That's the question behind Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. It's also behind Craig Lucas' Small Tragedy, the mordantly funny story of a group putting on what could be a truly ponderous version of the ancient play, down to the full-of-ominous-sucking-noises music.

Where Noises Off is a farce and The Rehearsal was really all about an escalation leading up to a disaster, this play-within-a-play framework is much more subtle, and much more naturalistic. Six actors — a kid who has played all the spear carriers, a theater newcomer with a murky past, two bickering roommates, a married couple — tackle the story of a man doomed to kill his father, marry his mother, and live to regret both. At least, that's the plan, but discipline breaks down early and the six have to find their level without killing each other. As this is happening, a larger story about blindness, both willful and not, is being spun out. "I choose to be happy — you can do that, you know," insists a character who has just been given a terrible piece of news and is deciding what action, if any, is appropriate.

The audition and first reading are hysterical as one character Shatners his way through the part of the blind seer, and the self-important director and his wife nearly come to blows over the translation. The shifts in the relationships are wonderful to watch, especially what develops between Paola (the sly and eternally fabulous Amy Resnick) and young, bitter Fanny. A car crash in Capri pants, Fanny is also loyal, protective, and maybe smarter than she lets on, even if she responds to lines like "We met during the Pleistocene" with "Is that a Greek play?" Rebecca Schweitzer seems doomed to play clueless young actresses, but while Fanny resembles the one she just played in Playhouse West's Here on the Flight Path, Lucas gives Fanny much more to do than Norm Foster did Angel, and Schweitzer runs with it.

Carrie Paff (Jen/Jocasta) is also ripening; her work here is much more nuanced than 2004's Betrayal, which was in turn light-years beyond her work in Woman's Will's Othello. Her Jen is breathless and overwrought, possessed of articulate hands and a carved-ivory profile, stern as a knife blade in the last scene. Paired with the smoldering Matteo Troncone as Bosnian war refugee Hakija, the connection is electric.

The play's "director," Nathaniel (Mark Anderson Phillips), shifts from easygoing to pompous at the drop of a script. When the cast of Oedipus discusses how dissent is handled in a democratic society, Nathaniel shoots down their questions, howling, "Can we just agree that we're not going to try to make the fucking play relevant?" But his relationship with Paola is more complicated than it at first appears, and raises again the question of what people do to hold their families together.

Playwright Craig Lucas has a knack for rhythms — awkward pauses, building chemistry, how to reveal old resentments and backstory. This piece is exquisitely formed, especially in the scenes where more than one conversation at a time is taking place. Real director Kent Nicholson keeps the actors moving around in a complex tango, as the characters explore "what constitutes tragedy, and what is simply a very sad thing."

This West Coast premiere is a sizzling kickoff for the Aurora's Global Age Project, which continues with staged readings for the next three Monday nights: Dan Hoyle's The Nigeria Show on April 24, Dominic Orlando's Monkey Sun on May 1, and Robert Duxbury's Drip on May 8.

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