It may be a good thing that one never knows quite what to expect from playwright Adam Rapp. He tends to favor exploring the dark night of the soul, but the nature of the darkness, whether it's depraved or redemptive, and in what social or economic context have no consistency. In that sense, he's a chameleon. The only other consistent thing about him is that he does like his little shocks. As with his choiice of darkness, the shocks can range from visually or verbally scatalogical to conventional dramatic irony to anarchy. Commensurately, I have both hated and embraced his work, and on occasion both at the same time.
Which I say because I think his latest, Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling (there
appears to be no comma separating the clauses) may be my favorite play
of his—though I hasten to add, I don't think it's his best, and I'm not
even sure I can tell you that it's good.
The best way I can explain that is by telling you—just a little—what it's about; or more specifically, to avoid spoilers, what it's up to, which isn't immediately evident, but sneaks up on you about ten, fifteen minutes in.
The play is set present day, in an opulent Connecticut home. The owners
of that home, the Cabots, Sandra (Christione Lahti) and Bertram (Reed Birney) are playing host to their old friends, the Von Stofenbergs, Dirk (Cotter Smith) and Celeste (Betsy Aidem). The occasion? The Von Stoffenberg's grown son, James (Shane McRae) has just been released from a two-year institutionalization after a suicide attempt.
He's still struggling, but he's able to cope now, to hold down a job
and function. Sort of. And he may have a soul mate of a kind in the
Cabots' daughter Cora (Katherine Waterston), pathologically
homebound, who, via her own level of deep eccentricity has fashioned
herself into an "artist", collecting arm hairs as a design ingredient. And there is the young African American cook/servant, Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine)
to whom Sandra has been teaching French.
From these ingredients, Dreams (as I will call it for short) has all the makings of domestic nightmare, along the lines of Albee, or melodrama, along the lines of Gilroy. But what happens instead is that Rapp puts the subgenre of dysfunctional family play through a filter of slowly escalating anarchy, in which the expected protocols of civilized ettiquette become merely an increasingly surreal shell game for outrageous intrigues and potentially devastating betrayals. As if Albee had taken a deep detour through Sam Shepard and wound up positioned between John Guare and Joe Orton. With a mild dollop of sidebar influence from the shaggy dog joke known as The Aristocrats.
Why is the play my favorite of Rapp's? Because once I realized what the game was, I took a certain giddy delight in it. Why am I not sure that the play is good, despite that? Because I think the game is all there is; the sense of gravitas is illusory because the game appeals—or rather, can appeal—to the ego, to one's sense of cultural awareness. It's not exactly an insiders' game, but to know this genre of plays well enough to recognize what's being "sent up" does require a familiarity with the literature. The game isn't deep, but it's sly. And you can feel just a little bit sly yourself about recognizing "the secret handshake." I'm duty bound to add, though, my companion of the eveng was far less tolerant, and hated the play, hated being yanked around—and she knows the literature. Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling is one of those that divides its audiences easily, because with surreality comes ambiguity, and with ambiguity oft comes irritation. A friend of mine remarked, "I think Rapp's plan was simply, 'Now I'll do this, and the audience will say holy shit.' And I think my friend is right.
I suppose, too, I found the ride engaging because Rapp, and director Neil Pepe (who manages to deliver all this with a bone-dry, wink-free matter-of-factness) have assembled an extraordinary cast. As standouts among equals, Christine Lahti is at her burning hot, predatory best (I've almost always admired her on film and in the theatre, but I've never seen her take hold with such nail-gun penetration before); and Katherine Waterston manages to sell that great dramatic contradiction, the notion that quietly insidious dimentia is some kind of window to the truth.
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