October 5, 2011

Why "Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling" Flies

I’m going to be honest with you.  I had no idea what to make of Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, the new Adam Rapp play that the Atlantic Theater Company, its own facilities under renovation, opened at Classic Stage on Monday night. And since I’m being candid, I should say that there may be a lot less there than meets the eye. Yet, I have to admit that I was fascinated by it. 

The 90-minute play takes place right before, during and after a dinner party attended by two well-heeled Connecticut couples (the husbands once rowed crew together at Yale) and their near-adult and very troubled children (the dinner is celebrating the release of one couple’s son from the mental hospital following a suicide attempt; the daughter of the other is an agoraphobic with a morose attitude and a weird interest in arm hair).

This being a Rapp play there is much profanity, many intimations of violence, heavy dollops of brazen sexuality (two people actually get down right on the dining room table) and, despite it all, lots of laughs.

Rapp seems to want to say something profound about the depravity of that one percent of the people in this country who own 40 percent of its wealth. And he goes heavy on the symbolism to hammer home his point. There’s a chained lion in the basement of the host couple’s home, a possible allusion to the waning power of the once-mighty middle class. There’s an epidemic of dying geese, perhaps representing a disregard for the environment. There’s an overworked and underestimated black maid, clearly the object of careless racism and probably a stand-in for the virtues of working-class America.

Or at least that’s what I think those things were supposed to mean because, in keeping with my honesty theme, I have to say I don’t know what the hell they really meant. And that uncertainty means that it would have been easy for the play to tip over into twee surrealism.  That it doesn’t is due to the firm, guiding hand of director Neil Pepe and to the gifted actors he’s recruited.

Pepe’s production deftly treads the tightrope between the silly and the almost sublime. It never doubts the material, treating even its most absurd moments with such straightforward sincerity that I was eager to know what would happen next even when Rapp made it tough to understand what had just happened.

There isn’t one sluggard in the cast.  Christine Lahti has the showiest role and she has a dandy time playing Sandra, the larcenous host of the dinner party who has designs on her meek husband’s more virile best friend and is willing to do anything to get him (click here to read a Q&A with Lahti). 

The redoubtable Reed Birney gives dignity to the milquetoast husband and Cotter Smith finds the decency in his pal, a repressed, Bernie Madoff-like financier. Both actors have played similar characters before but no one plays them better.

But even in such grand company, Quincy Tyler Bernstine manages to stand out as the put-upon maid Wilma. Bernstine is often a solemn actress but she displays a winning lightness here, sidestepping the stereotypical sassiness that usually gets tapped for such roles and coming up with a refreshingly original take that reveals Wilma to be a woman who’s made peace with the nonsense that her supposed betters are constantly creating. It’s Bernstine’s finest work to date. 

The creative team does its part too, particularly costume designer Theresa Squire who puts all the trademark WASP wear—seersucker jackets, candy-colored slacks, madras bow ties and Chanel suits—to sly effect. 

I went to the show by myself and so I had no one with whom to kibitz about it on the subway ride home but I have been trading emails with my theatergoing buddy Bill who saw it the night before I did. We still haven’t settled on a satisfying sense of what Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling is all about. But the one thing I am sure of is that I’m really glad I saw it.

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