by JK Clarke
This one goes to eleven . . . and stays there.
To suggest that John Patrick Shanley is one of the finest living American playwrights (and screenwriters, for that matter, will garner few arguments. With a laundry list of major awards to his name (Academy Awards, Tonys, and a Pulitzer), not to mention a canon of American classics of stage and film (Moonstruck, Doubt: A Parable, Alive, Outside Mullingar . . . Joe Versus the Volcano), it’s quite apparent that even his lesser known works deserve second looks. So, The Attic Theater Company’s first official revival (since its 1986 debut) of the dreamer examines his pillow at The Flea Theater comes as a great delight to Shanley’s fans.
Directed by Laura Braza—who also directed last summer’s delightful Attic revival of Preston Sturges’ Strictly Dishonorable—the dreamer examines his pillow, in typical Shanley fashion, is an intense examination of the emotional inner lives of its three characters: brash Donna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti); Tommy (Shane Patrick Kearns), her erstwhile boyfriend; and Donna’s Dad (Dennis Parlato). Tommy is a deadbeat, unlovable bad boy, who lives in a run down apartment and talks to his refrigerator while swilling cheap beer. Except, because of that inexplicable thing that makes bad boys so appealing, women—particularly Donna—do love him no matter what he does. And that includes sleeping with her 16-year-old sister. Yes, he’s that bad. But love him she does, and after unsuccessfully confronting him, she enlists her father’s help in either making him see things her way, or beating him to a pulp. Problem is, father and boyfriend are a lot alike, right down to the disturbing artwork they create.
The dreamer examines his pillow is a deeply emotional play. Though the characters may all be working class, gruff and not especially educated, they are nonetheless complex and self-aware (with the possible exception of Tommy); but more than anything, they’re willing to bare their souls and display incredibly raw feelings in front of one another (and us): “If this guy Tommy is turnin’ into you, then I’m in some kinda car I don’t even know I’m in . . . Is this my pain? My love? Or is what’s goin on here just like history?” Donna asks her father, pleading for an explanation for her unhealthy attraction.
Unfortunately, in this production we don’t get the complex and nuanced layers of Donna’s character because Cipoletti delivers her thickly Staten Island-accented lines in a constant state of emotional frenzy and at TOP VOLUME; at times she’s so loud it’s necessary to cover one’s ears. Which would be fine, except she goes to those heights early on and never comes down. Donna’s role comes off less like a believable, pained character and more like someone reading sides in an acting class. Later in the play, when Donan describes to her father her uncontrollable love for Tommy as “a blast a light out in the stars,” we don’t feel her simultaneous ecstasy and lack of control. All we hear is her shouting. It’s too bad, too, because one gets the impression that Cipoletti could perform the role more subtly and that this is perhaps the result of a directorial decision.
Both Kearns and Cipoletti don’t appear to inhabit their roles. Far too often Shanley’s brilliant lines come off sounding like beats in a sitcom. Parlato is the saving grace, with his multi-layered Dad as a loveable, yet debonair bum of sorts, easy to despise and admire at the same time. He’s Charles Bukowski in a smoking jacket; a funny guy who, like Tommy, is pretty much an awful human being. But Tommy is played as one dimensional, almost a Sylvester Stallone type who has no skin in the game.
Credit must be given to The Attic Theater Company for their continued excellent choice in plays. The opportunity to see this rarely produced, magnificent piece is a gift to all theater goers. However, the missed opportunity of plumbing the depths of its incredibly intricate and beautifully written dialog is a shame. Perhaps as the production continues it will further evolve and the actors will begin to fill their roles more naturally, helping to bring out the meaningful, well-written play that it is.
the dreamer examines his pillow. Through August 15 at The Flea Theater (41 White Street, between Broadway and Church Street, Tribeca). www.theflea.org
photos by Natalie Artemyeff