“What if I said I am not what you think you see?” Mitchell Winter asks after barging onto the stage through a refrigerator door at the beginning of Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play. He’s a human actor, yes, playing a part in the rented space of a nonprofit theater, but his character wants to explain in advance the terms of the fiction you’re watching. Please imagine he’s some other creature: a lone wolf, he insists, out on the prowl defending himself. In this fiction, he’s also a young Korean boy, or at least he operates a puppet that has a spindly body and a fragile papier-mâché head and stands in for the child. The Wolf is perhaps the representation of the boy’s defensive fantasies, or maybe the boy is the body the Wolf itself is trapped in. Jung’s play keeps you in thrilling, unnerving suspense. “The truth,” as Winter says at the top, “is a wobbly thing.”
When the puppet is introduced, he goes by the name Pete Jr., and he’s being dropped off by his adoptive father, Peter (Christopher Bannow), into the house of a queer couple in San Francisco. One member of that couple, Robin (Nicole Villamil), frets before his arrival, overinflating balloons and bickering with her brother, Ryan (Brian Quijada). Things between Robin and Peter are already tense and take a turn for the worse when Ash (Esco Jouléy), who is nonbinary and referred to as Robin’s wife, storms into the scene with a deep distrust of Peter. This is a secondhand adoption: Peter and his wife have decided to give up their adopted son now that she has given birth to a biological one. Robin found their listing on a Yahoo! chat room and leaped at the chance to circumvent bureaucracy and quickly have a child of her own.
Immediately, the cracks in Robin’s quick-and-easy approach to motherhood start to show. The child is 6, not 3 as listed. He’s got anger issues (he does think of himself as a wolf), and his name isn’t Pete but Jeenu. He tells Ash that later, in a quiet moment over breakfast. Jeenu doesn’t connect with Robin, who’s full of fretful mother-hen energy, but develops a lupine respect for Ash, who’s training to be a professional boxer and has a sense of physical authority. In a striking early gesture, Ash crouches down to the level of the Wolf and the puppet. Then Ash lifts the puppet out of the way and sees the Wolf eye to eye.
Wolf Play might be unbearable if not for imaginative gestures like that one — but really, it’s about how people cope with unbearable situations by using their imagination. This production grips you with both its facts and its fictions. Jung’s play is based on grim real-life experiences; in the MCC lobby after the play, you’ll see poster boards with information about secondhand adoptions. The fantastical touch of the puppet and the Wolf, who maintains a relationship with the audience through running asides about the characters, lightens the experience with humor (at one point, the Wolf pauses the action to do some terrible stand-up comedy), pulling you in emotionally so the punches land when your guard is down — it’s fitting for a play full of boxing metaphors. Winter, wearing kneepads and a beanie with little paper wolf ears attached, ducks and weaves around the other actors, playing a defensive id that’s somewhere between Iago (a character who also isn’t what he is) and Cabaret’s Emcee with a squishy weak spot. He’ll be charming and relentless and then, suddenly, helpless.
Dustin Wills, directing, sets the action in a make-believe semi-reality. Actors walk through a physical door but also through the space where a wall might be. You see one scene only as shadows projected onto a curtain. You-Shin Chen’s scenic design is a barricade of household detritus that seemingly threatens to spill into the audience from one side of the stage and props that are not quite right: a box of Wheaties has been taped and written over to stand in for Kashi; when an actor pours milk from a carton, out come little white puffballs. As the Wolf says, this play is a wobbly thing.
With this many topics jostling for stage time — from ideas about transracial adoption to gender expectations in parenting — the wobbliness can occasionally become destabilizing. The play has to reach to accommodate the dynamic between Ash and Ryan, who is their boxing coach as well as Robin’s brother and who starts to resent Jeenu because being a parent is a drag on Ash’s career. The actors, nearly all returning from Wolf Play’s run at Soho Rep last year, have found the deep grooves of their characters. For the sake of the plot, Jung sometimes needs them to express themselves bluntly to get on to the next event. The play starts to wander and lose momentum two-thirds of the way through, then winds itself back together around a climactic fight in the metaphorical ring, accelerating toward a bruising final round.
Both times I’ve seen Wolf Play, at Soho Rep and MCC, I’ve felt out of breath by the end. Why? It tells you it’s fiction right away and keeps reminding you about that throughout, but instead of distancing you from the action, the gesture keeps you close. You’re making this fiction real alongside the actors, believing in everything from the Kashi box to the puppeteering. Within this world, the characters are projecting something onto Jeenu, too, seeing the version of the boy they want in this puppet child. It’s cruel, but very human, to look at a kid and see only the version of him you imagine. He’s not what they think they see. He’s not what you think you see, either. He told you that right from the start: He’s not a kid but a wolf.
Whereas Wolf Play abounds in theatrical invention, the musical Cornelia Street could use a lot more of it. This show is a clumsily obvious misfire: It’s set at a struggling restaurant on Cornelia Street in the West Village and centers on a grungy cook who’s trying to keep the business alive as the spirit of the neighborhood dies out. That’s a fairly rote premise for any story set in New York, and Simon Stephens, the Brit who wrote the book, doesn’t have much insight to add. Norbert Leo Butz huffs and grumbles as Jacob Towney (get the last name?), feeding a collection of dreary regulars while dreaming of ways to try to lure in more customers with better food and buy out his lease. Complications arrive in the form of an ex’s daughter (Gizel Jiménez) as well as a misbegotten scheme to use the business as a front for selling coke.
The highlight of the two-hour-and-20-minute experience in the Atlantic’s Stage 2 basement is really Scott Pask’s set, a meticulous rendering of an old barroom that comes with a white-painted radiator I expected to start banging at any moment. But the set is filled with vaguely painted characters. Everyone seems to be a type, from Esteban Andres Cruz’s wisecracking aspiring-actor waiter and George Abud’s sleazy dealer to Ben Rosenfield’s nerdy Google employee. Mary Beth Peil, playing a daffy former devotee of Studio 54, fares best because only Mary Beth Peil can get away with delivering a line like “How’s the World Wide Web?” or describing a character’s penis as remarkably smooth and beautiful.
Otherwise, pretty much everyone is stuck in the mud of familiar tropes, and neither Neil Pepe’s direction nor Mark Eitzel’s workaday songwriting can lever them out of it. Stephens seems to want his book to wander across several plotlines, but for that to work, one of them has to have some depth. There are also fundamental holes. Intermission, for instance, comes not after a sung Act One finale but after a brief exchange of dialogue and a blackout. The audience wasn’t sure whether to get up, though the couple next to me did and then, understandably, never came back. I hope they, unlike me, wandered down from 16th Street into the real-life West Village, found a non-facsimile of a bar, and got themselves an actual drink.
Wolf Play is at MCC through March 19.
Cornelia Street is at the Atlantic’s Stage 2 through March 5.