Austin Playhouse has started its new season with, fittingly, a new work by playwright Steven Dietz. “This Random World” receives its local premiere at the venerable company under the direction of producing artistic director Don Toner, with a cast of some of Austin Playhouse’s best actors.
After producing Dietz’s lyrical, intimately focused “Bloomsday” last season, is is interesting to see Toner take on such a tonally different work from the playwright. A true ensemble piece, “This Random World” loosely revolves around the Ward family (mother Scottie, daughter Beth and son Tim), a morbid but jovial trio who face down a familial obsession with death both humorously and secretively.
“This Random World” is not bleak in its outlook, and despite moments of devastating sadness (undercut a bit by an unfortunately timed intermission) it is ultimately, like “Bloomsday,” wistfully optimistic. Along with mortality, it tackles topics as diverse as travel, breakups, mental health, and even how to write a proper obituary. Dietz takes on each of these subjects with a unique blend of humor and pathos, borne out by a talented cast.
Austin Playhouse mainstays Babs George, as Scottie, and Molly Karrasch, as Beth, are each uniquely quirky and soulful, and it is a delight to see Joey Banks, as Tim, given room to show his talents after a series of smaller roles in shows last season. Jacqui Cross and Carla Nickerson join them as sisters Bernadette and Rhonda, who are unfortunately given somewhat short shrift by the text but play their more stereotyped roles to the best extent possible. Finally, Jess Hughes and J. Ben Wolfe round out the cast as Claire and Gary (a couple in the midst of a breakup who each have, or end up having, ties to the Wards), imbuing their roles with depth and nuance.
“This Random World” is a complex text in terms of the interconnected relationships it keeps simmering just below the surface, revealed to the audience with a heaping of dramatic irony while the characters themselves remain unaware. However, it is relatively straightforward in its execution, with a series of simple scenes that continually mix and match the characters.
Toner follows this simple style in his direction, avoiding cluttering the stage with business outside of the actors’ interactions. Set designer Mike Toner keeps the trappings to a minimum, with each setting created through a few simple, iconic objects, allowing lighting designers Don Day and Chris Conard, along with sound designer Joel Mercado-See, to set the ambience and mood.
Taking a cue from such films as “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia” (and, more classically, the interconnectivity of plot and character in Shakespeare and Dickens), “This Random World” is a charming, funny, accessible play about the connections that we all miss amid our own self-obsessions.
“THIS RANDOM WORLD”
When: 8 p.m Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 24
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Information: 512-476-0084, austinplayhouse.ticketleap.com/this-random-world/.