a theatre, film & pop culture review
Charles Isherwood is done with Adam Rapp, but I’m not — not even after the disappointing Atlantic Theater Company production of the prolific playwright’s bizarrely shallow Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling.
The set-up of Rapp’s latest — two monied families welcome home one of their ilk from a swanky psychiatric hospital — promises the dinner-table drama of August: Osage County with apocalyptic Hitchcockian wild geese. Potentially, it’d be everything you love/hate about a Rappian drama, only this time set in an opulent Connecticut home rather than a squalid motel/hallway/basement: The play’s inhabitants would be just as verbally violent, its plot equally dark and desperate with just enough over-the-top Albee-ian absurdism to mix things up a bit.
And to an extent it’s exactly that: a feisty, Chanel-clad Christine Lahti nails the sharply tongued matriarch who plots the death of her slightly-dopey, but well-intentioned husband (Reed Birney, excellent as always) while also aggressively pursuing an affair with an old family friend (Cotter Smith); an unamused African-American maid (an embarrassingly underutilized Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is condescendingly “educated” by her employers, who uncomfortably (for us) force her to perform Shakespearean sonnets upon demand; the disturbed golden child (Shane McRae), who jumped off a building for no clear reason, nonchalantly chats about his internet friendship with a 14-year-old Iraqi terrorist; and there may or may not be an actual lion chained in the basement (not-so-much-of-a-spoiler alert: there is a lion chained in the basement. And since there’s no props manager listed, I’ll give kudos to set designers Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata for the very life-like lioness).
While half of the dagger-like dialogue is deliciously, breezily witty, the other is synthetic and forced — having so-oft written for society’s misfits, Rapp’s colorful verbiage at times feels out of place with the well-to-do. In addition, the play’s many symbols — lions and pterodactyls and geese (oh my) — and sonnets and story lines are largely unsubstantiated. They keep adding up — and director Neil Pepe keeps it all moving along at a nice clip — but they never really amount to anything. When it’s good, it’s great (the raucous sex scene between the two unhappy progeny), but too often it’s not: the usually down-and-dirty Rapp has his white gloves on, and he simply isn’t as shocking in Chanel.
But what’s glaringly missing is the heart that typically pulses a layer (or five or ten) beneath the surface of Rapp’s work (such as in The Hallway Trilogy). In Dreams, none of the characters are explored fully and we’re only allowed to view them from a distance: Lahti’s Sandra is just a rich bitch, and Katherine Waterston’s damaged daughter comes off as just an oddball artist (through no fault of Waterston’s). The one soul we can sympathize with is Dirk Von Stofenberg, the banker dad in black blazer and red dockers with Madoff-like troubles. As Dirk, Cotter Smith treads more softly and subtly than the rest of this loquacious party, radiating equal parts charm and defeat. When he makes that sole, life-altering sacrifice, you feel the weight of his decision and realize that — that care — was what was missing all along.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with Dreams, but it doesn’t have anything new to say, either. So while I’d hate to discourage Rapp from tackling different locales and tax brackets, let’s leave the icy chandeliers and cruel upper-class to that master of the absurd, Albee.
I much prefer those damaged souls in the damp basement with their dark deeds any day.