Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling: Alternatively Fascinating and Frustrating

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Taking potshots at the hypocrisy of the white upper middle class has long been a favorite pastime of playwrights. Where someone like an A.R. Gurney might make his point with the finesse of a master craftsman, Adam Rapp instead prefers the sledge hammer approach, using wit and angst to tear down illusions and the status quo with an almost crazed fervor in his latest work Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.

In a wealthy Connecticut home, longtime married couple Dr. Bertram Cabot (Reed Barney) and his wife Sandra (Christine Lahti) are a typical WASPy pair. They have money, throw it around with carefree abandon, travel the world and are involved in various causes and projects. The couple's latest such effort involves teaching Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), their new African-American maid, to speak French (as Bertram puts it, "it's kind of like our own little continuing ed program.").

However, there is pain under these seemingly happy exteriors. The Cabot's daughter Cora (Katherine Waterston) has basically become a shut-in since graduating college, and a constant source of irritation to her parents. On this particular evening, Bertram and Sandra are giving a sort of welcome home party for James Von Stofenberg (Shane McRae), son of their longtime friends Dirk and Celeste Von Stofenberg (Cotter Smith, Betsy Aidem), James only now getting back on his feet after battling schizophrenia and a brush with suicide.

It also quickly becomes apparent that Sandra is not a happy woman. She takes continual verbal swipes at Bertram, whom she has grown to despise, while brazenly making passes at Dirk. Plus, when she finally gets Dirk alone, Sandra asks him to help her kill her husband and then run away with her. At first Dirk doesn't know what to make of Sandra's request or advances, but being trapped in loveless marriage of his own, he finds himself seriously considering the proposition.

Underneath all the trappings and phony layers presented is the almost pathological need for a second chance and an opportunity to start over. As the play progress, what emerges is a portrait of lost souls, all (except perhaps Wilma and Celeste) desperately searching for something to make them feel truly alive once more.

It should be noted that Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling is not one of Rapp's best works; the play requiring strong performances and direction to make the script come alive. Fortunately this production has plenty of both to help get over the soft spots. Lahti steals the show as Sandra, a powerful woman channeling her sexuality into every word, motion or innuendo she can get away with. Lahti and Rapp also paint Sandra with an almost Machiavellian streak, as she's determined to find a way out of her current situation, no matter what the cost or who it hurts.

However since Lahti comes on so strong and all but dominates the first 20 minutes of the play, when she leaves the stage, there's a noticeable drop in pacing. Waterston, as Cora, and reminding one of the Wynona Rider character in "Bettlejuice," simply isn't up to taking over from her. (Reed and Smith, fortunately are able to hold their own in their scenes with Lahti.) In the same vein, some of the early dinner sequences, with the entire group sitting and talking, feel rather stilted and flat in light of what has come before. At least until Cora and James find themselves alone and begin a hilariously choreographed scene that ends on top of the dining room table; a segment which combines sex, comedy, desperation and need, with almost no words spoken throughout. There's also a wonderful moment when Wilma walks in on the goings-on and is accidentally drawn into the proceedings, as well as becoming a reluctant co-conspirator of sorts.

Smith nicely underplays the character of Dirk. Like Sandra, he's also trapped in a situation he would do anything to escape from, even though he has never fully really realized these feelings, much less verbalized them, till now. Battered by hints of a financial scandal, and desperate for a modicum of peace, he finds himself taking the only path open to him, and one can often feel the terrible loneliness he carries inside.

Birney and Aidem are hamstrung by the one-dimensional limits of their characters, and thus have little chance to really resonate with the audience (though one can occasionally feel the impotent pain in Bertram's decision to run and hide rather than face some serious issues). Both acquit themselves well, despite the limitations of the script.

Waterston's character also suffers from a lack of descriptive history, though she gets a chance to shine in the scene described above, ably displaying both her comic and dramatic talents as a result. McRae is good as the tormented James, and Bernstine adds some sly charm as Wilma, a woman who just tries to keep her head down, do her job and who often gets to have a private laugh in her dealings with Sandra.

Neil Pepe's direction is good, keeping the story moving nicely and having the actors use as much of the stage as possible. Indeed, Lahti at times resembles a menacing jungle cat, stalking Dirk as her pray, with the end objective firmly fixed in her mind. Unfortunately Pepe, like the actors, is often defeated by the lack of various details in the script (back stories on Celeste, Cora and Bertram, and a deeper look into Dirk and Celeste's history would have been a nice place to start).

The dining room set by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata is nicely functional and David Van Tieghem's work with sound design is very strong. Costumes by Theresa Squire are nicely appealing, especially the outfits worn by Lahti and Waterston.

Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling is an interesting look at those who, on the surface, seemingly have it all, but who are actually tormented beyond belief inside. Quite funny and powerful as anything Rapp has written at points, at other times the script simply doesn't hold up as it should.

Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling

Featuring: Christine Lahti (Sandra Cabot), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Wilma), Reed Birney (Dr. Bertram Cabot), Cotter Smith (Dirk Von Stofenberg), Katherine Waterston (Cora Cabot), Betsy Aidem (Celeste Von Stofenberg), Shane McRae (James Von Stofenberg)

Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Neil Pepe
Sets: Andres Boyce & Takeshi Kata
Costumes: Theresa Squire
Lights: Tyler Micoleau
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Violence Consultant: J. David Brimmer
Casting: Telsey & Company
Production Manager: Erin Maureen Koster
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager: Michael Wade
Associate Artistic Director: Christian Parker
General Manager: Jamie Tyrol
Assistant Stage Manager: Rhonda Picou

Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company
at the Classic Stage Company space
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 30, 2011

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