06 November 2011

'Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling'

The first play in the Atlantic Theater Company’s season that I saw this year was Adam Rapp’s “surreal” (ATC’s word) Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, performed at the CSC theater in the East Village (where ATC's presenting this production because it's rebuilding its Chelsea home). My friend Diana and I, having taken out a subscription to this season’s mainstage productions, went down to East 13th Street near 3rd Avenue on Wednesday evening, 19 October, for the 80-minute one-acter that Charles Isherwood calls “an empty farrago of a play” in the New York Times but which John Lahr in the New Yorker describes as a “fierce little play.” To be honest (and what else?), I don’t know whether I agree with Isherwood or with Lahr—or whether I don’t agree with either reviewer. To quote the great Vinnie Barbarino: “I’m so confused!” That’s a reportable reaction, too, I’m afraid, though it hardly does any of you very much good. Let’s see if I can sort Dreams out a little for us all—or at least describe the experience.

First, let me admit that I don’t know Rapp’s work at all. I’ve heard his name for years, but I’ve never been motivated to catch a production of one of his plays. I’m not sure Dreams will change my mind on that score. Both Diana and I came out with the same sense, which, Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post writes, “feels as if Rapp is trying a little too hard”; Diana even said the play seemed like the work of a novice writer trying out ideas he isn’t ready to handle yet, even after I pointed out that Rapp has been around for a number of years and is in his 40’s. For all I know, though, Rapp could either usually be clear as crystal or always obscure and muddled. I have only one play on which to go, so I’ll have to treat it as a one-off and do the best I can to describe what I saw.

In Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling (there’s no internal punctuation in the title, which may be significant of something—though I’m not sure what), Bertram Cabot and his wife Sandra (pronounced “Sondra”) have invited their old friends Dirk and Celeste Von Stofenberg to dinner at their “opulent Connecticut home” (“the Rowayton area," Rapp says) to celebrate the release from Stockbridge House, a private psychiatric hospital, of the Von Stofenberg’s adult son, James, following an attempt to fly off a roof. Before Celeste and James appear, the Cabots are entertaining Dirk over drinks in the elegantly-set dining room, and Sandra pays Dirk the most explicit compliments on his physique and appearance, as if she’s appraising a prize stud horse for breeding. Bert steps out of the room as this gets more and more awkward, and Sandra enlists Dirk to help her kill her husband. Later, geese start dive-bombing into the side of the house and the sky turns beige, and there are the growls of a lion coming through the intercom from the basement. During the evening, Sandra and Bert take their friends downstairs to tour the newly refinished basement among whose features is an aquarium housing a 47-inch barracuda which, Sandra explains, is fed on other fish supplied by a man from Norwalk. While the older couples are out of the room, James and the Cabot’s strange daughter (she’s working on an art project for which she collects arm hair), make a connection and suddenly are having raucous sex on the dining table, knocking the dishes and silver and even the furniture about the room. Wilma, the Cabots African- American maid (from Red Hook, Brooklyn, we’re informed), whom Sandra’s training not only in the domestic arts but in the sonnets of Shakespeare and the French language, goes about cleaning up and putting things back in order as the coupling continues loudly on the table top. The menu, by the way, is wild goose (one of the ones Wilma’s picked up off the lawn?) and, for dessert, crème brûlée made with a special ingredient. Lion’s milk. This isn’t a normal world these folks live in!

My problem is that I couldn’t figure out where it was all heading—what Rapp was trying to say to me. As Vincentelli puts it, “[E]verybody’s behavior is off in a way that’s hard to pinpoint.” Okay, the very rich are nastier than you and me. (Well, me anyway.) They like to destroy things—nature, animals, other people, their own young, each other—and they look down an everything that’s not part of their select environment—Bert regales Dirk with the tale of his and Sandra’s last trip to Borneo, and while he takes great delight in the poverty, deprivation, and neediness he sees everywhere away from Connecticut’s Gold Coast (even Hartford, the state capital, comes in for insults), Sandra denigrates in the most vulgar and frankest terms all that they’ve seen. But is that all Rapp’s trying to say? I gather from comments that his plays usually deal with the downtrodden and forgotten people, the damaged and disturbed, and that he’s often portrayed the upper classes and wealthy in similarly bad light—Dreams is apparently a rare Rapp play set in a nice home (designed here by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata) rather than a tenement or other derelict setting—but if that’s his only point, he’s gone to elaborate lengths just to make it again. Several of the reviewers invoked Edward Albee’s name and work by way of comparison (not always to Rapp’s benefit), but Albee uses the absurdity of his plots and characters to fuller purposes—at least in his top plays. In Albee’s hands, absurdity is a scalpel or at least a switchblade; for Rapp, it’s a blunt instrument. If Rapp is saying anything more than that the rich are bastards, however, I can’t suss it out.

Behavior in Dreams is curiously unmotivated, but that’s not the fault of the actors. (I don’t think it’s director Neil Pepe’s responsibility, either—it’s the way Rapp wrote the play and the characters.) Sandra (Christine Lahti) not only denigrates everything yet travels apparently continuously, she commands the maid, Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), to recite a sonnet the way Pozzo orders Lucky to sound off in Waiting for Godot—it comes out of nowhere in the middle of serving dinner. The Cabot’s basement, however newly redone, seems to be an unnatural object of interest. When the older folks have left the room, the nearly catatonic Cora Cabot (Katherine Waterston) virtually jumps James Von Stofenberg’s (Shane McRae) bones with little prelude or, dare I say, foreplay. And when she walks in on the acrobatic sex scene, Wilma seems unsurprised and goes about her duties as if stepping around a rambunctious puppy. All the characters behave—you can’t call it reacting, since that implies a motivating force—this way in one way or another. Sandra announces that she wants Dirk (Reed Birney) to kill Bert (Cotter Smith), and he hesitates momentarily (they went to Yale together—and even rowed on the same crew!), but considers the proposal as if she’d asked him to throw her husband little party. Even seemingly plain and simple Celeste Von Stofenberg reveals a seriously bent psyche when she relates the plot of a children’s book she’s writing: a little boy is abandoned by his parents in a dead volcano in Hawaii. A baby pterodactyl feeds him and teaches him to fly. But the child puts on so much weight he can’t get off the ground so he decides to cut his feet off to lose the extra weight. No one seems to find any of that gruesome—or to see the connection with either the dream Dirk relates to Sandra (it’s where the title comes from) or the attempt James had made to fly off the roof of a building.

In fact, this is a world without connections. As ominous as the crashing geese and the oddly-colored sky are, presaging something portentous, there’s no link to anything on stage or elsewhere that I could determine. Even in the end when James carries the body of a dead lioness up from the Cabots’ basement and lays it on the dining table, only the silence suggests that anything unusual might be going on.

The acting all around was fine. I usually find Lahti hard and humorless no matter whom she’s playing, and that works for some roles—as it does here. She’s clearly the center of this universe, for good or ill. In her Chanel-like suit and hard-shined high-heeled pumps (the costumes were designed by Theresa Squire), she’s as bitchy as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Smith’s Bert couldn’t have been more of a milquetoast, and McRae’s James was believably damaged (even if we never really learned why). Birney was required to do little more than look uncomfortable and nonplussed, which he did convincingly, even making his final act (which I won’t reveal as it’s the most genuinely surprising beat in the play) seem consonant with Rapp’s world. Pepe’s direction was also totally competent, given Rapp’s script. (I don’t mean that to be a backhanded compliment.) The lack of motivation wasn’t the director’s failure; it was clearly the playwright’s intent—even if I don’t get why. (And I admit that that may be my failure. I’m just not tuned into Rapp’s frequency, I guess—which is why I’ve never felt compelled to see his plays before.)

Most of the criticism was mixed, with some coming down decidedly on the negative side. I’ve already mentioned Isherwood’s New York Times evaluation; he went on to call Dreams, “A tediously outlandish dark comedy.” Joe Dziemianowicz in New York’s Daily News called the play an “amusing work” the first half of which “is played for laughs.” The script, Dziemianowicz says, is “pungent and on-target” but ultimately “loses steam and its sense of fun as it turns into a surreal morality tale.” In New York magazine, Scott Brown writes, “Dreams of Flying doesn’t have much new to say on the subject of the savagery underlying American wealth and privilege, but it has a great time covering the classics—adultery, exigency, barely suppressed madness and hysteria. You won’t feel much by the end, but you’ll have had a great evening getting numb.” Vincentelli concludes in the New York Post that Rapp and Pepe “expertly weave comedy and coiled nastiness,” but Marilyn Stasio’s Variety review sums up, “For all the savage talk and bestial imagery, there are no teeth—and consequently no bite—to this offbeat but superficial comedy.” In the Village Voice, Alexis Soloski writes, “Largely owing to the excellence of director Neil Pepe's cast, there's much to enjoy” but warns that “it's enough to put you off dessert.” Finally, Back Stage, the actors’ trade paper, reports in David Sheward’s notice that “Rapp manages to balance the overt theatrics with more-believable dramaturgy in his dark and wild new comedy.” In my confusion, I have to agree with everyone! (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.)

I’m afraid I may have confused you all more than I elucidated this theater experience. I can’t say I hated the performance. I’ve been to many that made me angry and worse, but I don’t feel that strongly after seeing Dreams. That may say something in itself, but I would advise anyone considering seeing Dreams, or perhaps any other of Rapp’s plays—and he’s a playwright with some popularity around the country (I don’t know about abroad)—that you consider whether he’s a writer you can get into or if, like me, he’s outside your orbit. He seems to be that kind of writer: if you get him, he’s engaging and provocative; if you don’t, you’re left in a quandary. Quandaries, however, aren’t life-threatening. Occasionally, they’re even intriguing to mull over. I can guarantee one thing: you won’t be bored!

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