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The Sleeping Girl

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In the pleasantly twinkling world of The Sleeping Girl, the new play at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, author Suzanne Bradbeer has gone to great lengths to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy. The impossible is commonplace, you should expect the unexpected every five minutes or so, and you can never be sure if what's happening onstage is real or part of an elaborate dream.

Is that because you might find yourself never entirely sure whether you're awake or asleep? Maybe. For just as The Sleeping Girl vacillates between the real and the ridiculous, so does it alternate between the captivating and the numbing. For every unique plot device, there's a hackneyed bit of dialogue; for every instance of honest sentiment, there's another of carefully scripted falsity that has you shaking your head in disbelief.

But even if this is one of those plays that only jolts you to attention right before you're about to nod off, the jolts end up creating a worthwhile evening. The surprise plots twists and genuine emotional content the play offers are impressively brought to the life in this production, which is directed by Olivia Honegger. And though Honegger and her cast aren't able to maintain much consistency of tone from beginning to end, they and Bradbeer still succeed at what they intend: spreading a message of hope.

For those who are still smarting from the outcome of the recent life-or-death battle over Terri Schiavo, it's an especially pointed, poignant message that Bradbeer addresses here, less concerned with the specifics of life and death than with an examination of beliefs and how they're acted upon. Here too there's a woman in a bed, unable to move, speak, or take care of herself, and whose very existence depends on Rita Faye Pruitte (Michele Harris), a New Yorker by way of Florida, from which she departed under mysterious circumstances a number of years ago.

Rita Faye is convinced that this is the day Annie's life will turn around, and she's planning a party in celebration of it. But what makes her so sure? Why has she enlisted the help of her friend Aggie (Cecilia deWolf) to design and construct a gaudy and spangly pink party dress? And who is the strange woman (JoAnna Rhinehart) who wanders into Rita Faye's apartment after losing track of not only time, but her place in it, but who seems to know about everything Rita Faye is going through?

In all this alone, Bradbeer has conceived enough material for a full play, if admittedly not one easily captured, identified, or tamed, especially in small scale. As if to help ground the more mystical parts of the story, Bradbeer also introduces several people from Rita Faye's past: her one-time fiancÚ Jackson (Tom Brangle) and his brother Polk (Calvin Gladen), and Jackson's new bride-to-be CeCe (Liz Bangs), who have all just arrived from Florida. It's not easy to explain exactly why they've come, or why CeCe makes her first appearance wearing not only her wedding dress but also an elaborate mermaid fin.

If the arrivals from Florida too often feel like a desperate attempt to inject comedy into an otherwise somber story, little else that Bradbeer has concocted dispels the show's lovably quirky charm. If Honegger is sometimes sloppy in her staging of larger group scenes, she's usually successful at evoking an urban dreamscape with her direction. (The pastel-tinted physical production - Jo Winiarski on sets, Naomi Wolff on costumes, Dana Sterling on lighting design - also helps tremendously.) And with the exception of Brangle, whose Jackson is too caricaturish to suggest any real attractive between him and Rita Faye, the supporting performers somehow make their contributions work, however bizarre they might be.

But Harris must carry the show, and she does so admirably, bringing to Rita Faye exhaustion, despair, and loneliness, but also highly developed maternal instincts. She nicely handles two act-opening monologues that are heavy on exposition, but structured in the style of bedtime stories. In these pieces, as throughout the rest of the play, Harris brings out Rita Faye's exhaustion, despair, and loneliness, but also her fortitude and determination.

Will those qualities enable her to heal and transform not only Annie, but everyone she knows? Bradbeer never leaves much room for doubt. But if she never is completely successful at balancing the predictable and the unbelievable, her central message - that one person really can change the world - comes through loud and clear in The Sleeping Girl.

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Relentless Theatre Company
The Sleeping Girl
Through April 23
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.340.1916