When the going gets tough, the tough go to sleep. Or at least one young woman named Diane does: She's discovered that the best way to remedy a rapidly disintegrating world is to build a new one, or at least a new place to live that won't bleed the Earth of its precious natural resources. And even if this wondrous place exists only in her dreams, it's still real, right?
Rinne Groff spends the 90 or so minutes of her new play at the Ohio Theatre, What Then, examining the myriad ways real life intrudes on dreams and, sometimes, vice versa. As dreams are all Diane (flightily played by Meg MacCary) has after losing her job, it would seem that there's a fertile playground in which Groff, director Hal Brooks, and the company can experiment.
But the fantastical elements of What Then quickly give way to a more conventional (if effectively camouflaged) political rumination, a condemnation of environmental policies and big business-favoring governments that allow faceless conglomerates to dry up bodies of water along with human livelihood. In an impressive show of restraint, President Bush is never named; however, as the show is set five years or so in the future, and as Diane's increasingly serious bouts of catatonia drive her further into the only place one person truly can make a difference, the point is still clearly made.
Diane's increasingly erratic sleep schedule and attitude - she can't hold down a "real" job because her dream work as an architect is far more rewarding - wreaks havoc on her husband Tom (Andrew Dolan) and his daughter Sallie (Merritt Wever), both of whom have their own problems. (He works for the corporation that's leeching Diane's life from her; Sallie's unable to rebuild her own life thanks to stringent drug test rules and an uncooperative family.) Only Sallie's boyfriend, Bahktiyor (Piter Marek), is capable of seeing Diane's point of view - he slowly becomes not just a kindred spirit to her, but the husband she's always dreamed of and the landscape architect who might be able to save the land's perishing soil.
The distinctions between dreams and reality blur, refocus, and blur again multiple times over the course of the play, and keeping up with them is often an exciting challenge. But ultimately we're never drawn into the fantasy - events are too grounded in the realistic for us to believe, as Diane does, in a worthwhile world just past the edge of consciousness. What so entices her about her dream to cause her to retreat entirely into it is never made clear to us beyond a few hysterical pronouncements and some inconclusive happening at evening's end.
Groff better balanced the actual and the imaginary in her play The Ruby Sunrise, about television's distortions and augmentations of true events, which had its New York premiere at the Public earlier this season. True, it also evidenced its author's difficulty in integrating current political concerns into a more complex and unconventional dramatic framework. But it had a humor and heart that the more inherently pointed and provocative What Then lacks, and more actively engaged the imagination.
Nonetheless, Brooks's direction is smooth, injecting moments of cleverness in a world as devoid of wit as it is becoming of water. And Jo Winiarski's post-modern kitchen set, Kirk Bookman's pre-apocalyptic lighting, and Joe Popp's mock-retro original music all set the right tone of clashing times and perspectives. But the acting is uneasily uneven across the board, with MacCary too stilted to effortlessly carry the weight of Diane's troubles (and thus the world's) on her shoulders; Dolan and Wever alternately overplay and underplay their alternately overwritten and underwritten roles.
Marek, though, strikes the proper tone of confliction: Bahktiyor eventually becomes as caught between Diane's world and the "real" one as she is, and his journey from curious skepticism to understanding becomes the play's most interesting. He's our advocate onstage, and it's great to see him swept away by possibility, however imaginary it may or may not be. If only it were possible us to join him and Diane for the ride.