I’ve been a fan of playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley for a long time. His last Broadway offering, The Manhattan Theatre Club production of Outside Mullingar, was consistent with solid attributes. It was direct, original, intriguing, with an ear for language and character insight. If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, think Doubt, A Parable, which won The Tony, The Drama Desk, The Pulitzer and was made into a successful film. Or the film Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and Cher.
the dreamer examines his pillow is the revival of a 1985 play and wet behind the ears. Through there’s evidence of what Shanley would become as a writer, flaws keep the intriguing piece from being successful.
Twenty-seven year-old Tommy (Shane Patrick Kearns) has lived four months in a messy, single tenement room he’s paying for with money stolen from his mom. We first meet him in old jeans and a dirty undershirt, sitting on the floor, talking to an open refrigerator. “Hail to you, O my refrigerator. Is myself in you? Can this be right? … Makes sense. …” (He communes with the appliance several times.) Is he drunk? Tripping? Neither. This is at least a sociopath and likely a psychotic, yet the play insists that the other characters (too smart for this by half) treat him like a young man who’s lost his way.
Ex lover Donna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti) bangs on the door swearing like a longshoreman. She aggressively enters, immediately disgusted by the place. In a dramatic example of passive/aggressive behavior, Donna condemns Tommy for seducing her sixteen year-old sister, attacks him for a worthless life, and sexually flirts like an animal in heat. Much of the former is accomplished at the top of her lungs. For his part, Tommy refuses to promise he’ll stop seeing Mona, yet declares he’ll die without Donna.
“When I left you, a fuse got lit. I didn’t know. The other end was my soul I didn’t know I had. And then one night the fuse that got lit all those days before reached my soul. And it just combusted ta fuckin’ daylights…” Imagine Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tommy is ostensibly trying to find himself in the depths of existential despair. It’s fairly impossible to credit this. He declares his love, she grudgingly admits hers, yet manages to (just) make it out with clothes intact.
The issue of what to do about a man with whom sex is the transporting be all and end all, while life with him is self-destructive, even dangerous, is put before her alienated father. Dad (Dennis Parlato) has been holed up with a bottle in his Brooklyn Heights apartment since Donna’s mother died. He has no use for people, no interest in parenting. Donna and dad are very much alike, both ubersensitive, foul mouthed, stubborn, and pugnacious. The squaring off in scene two is something to behold.
Donna is allowed three questions by her irascible old man. She chooses: How do you see women? What’s sex for? And Why did you stop painting? (Some of the best writing in the play is aired here.) In the course of answering, her dad reveals a great deal about his marriage, practical philosophy on lose-yourself-all-consuming sex, and his art (an interesting sidebar). Donna’s biggest fear, she tells him, is that Tommy is like him and she’s like her mom. Having observed what she perceived as a disastrous relationship, the young woman teeters on a precipice asking for help. Dad should go to Tommy, demand he stop bedding Mona, and beat him up if he doesn’t agree. How this might help her decide is moot.
On the one hand, relationships are unusual, characters well drawn in the moment, and there’s no lack of pithy exchange. On the other, there’s not a single sentence that tells us about Tommy’s history, ostensibly the source of his angst, or that of the couple. Dark pits of anger, hurt, and confusion Tommy and Dad supposedly share are delivered in lengthy monologues that can sound like beat poetry on acid. Yes, they have things in common, but. Nor do I buy the outcome for a minute.
Dad: “Why Live? Cause it’s not neat and the individual life is deceptive and a dream. We spill over into each other, man. We spill blood and breath and come an time over inta each other like shelves inna water wheel.”
Dennis Parlato loses focus a few times in his scene with Donna (or is playing loss of focus), but regains territory plus. Matter-of-fact fatalism, growing respect for and recognition of this tough young person resulting from his character’s seed becomes something to watch. Parlato articulates dad’s complexity plausibly despite the dichotomy between his cultural level and that of his offspring. Restrained violence that would make anyone blanch is palpably manifest by the actor in the last scene.
Lauren Nicole Cipoletti and Shane Patrick Kearns both have fine sections, hers most especially with Parlato. A description of ecstatic sex emerges with apparent visceral memory. Her lust/hunger and fear are as difficult to sustain through 90 minutes as Tommy’s primal anger, however. Breaking this into two acts would help.
Director Laura Braza lets the couple scream too much. She is, however, great with physical scenes, from a licentious come-on atop the refrigerator, to push/pull contact that sizzles and roughhouse that reads true. The small space is expertly used.
Julia Noulin-Merat’s Set Design is just wrong. That the walls of Tommy’s apartment bear dirty, brown splats where things have been thrown makes sense. That dozens and dozens of dark smears rise up to the ceiling where no contact would have been possible, makes the room look ridiculous. Only his self-portrait shows any originality. (A bed collapsed mid scene.) This is compounded by the space’s necessary doubling as dad’s Brooklyn Heights home which would have been much nicer.
Beth Lake’s Sound Design is uncomfortably dissonant and acts as background to scenes that might’ve had more effect were they not turned into soap opera by her contribution.
Photos by Natalie Artemyeff
Opening: Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Shane Patrick Kearns
2. Shane Patrick Kearns
3. Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Dennis Parlato
4. Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Shane Patrick Kearns, Dennis Parlato
The Attic Theater Company presents
the dreamer examines his pillow by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Laura Braza
Featuring: Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Shane Patrick Kearns, Dennis Parlato
The Flea Theater
41 White Street
The Attic Theater Company
Through August 15, 2015