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The Sleeper
Aux Dog Theatre

Sleeper
Michael Girlamo, Taunya Crilly and
Stephen Zamora

Going to live theater is always a bit of a gamble, and the stakes are higher when it's a play that you've never heard of by an author you've never heard of. I'm happy to report that with this production of The Sleeper by Catherine Butterfield, the audience at the Aux Dog Theatre (a full house on opening night) took a big chance and won the bet.

I know next to nothing about Catherine Butterfield, but based on this script, I wonder why her work is not produced more often. The Sleeper is a comedic take on the paranoia that gripped the whole country after 9/11/2001 and the anthrax scare. It's frightening to think that, already, these events are only faint memories for today's high-schoolers, and maybe this play will seem incredibly dated a couple decades from now. But the vast majority of today's theatergoers can easily recall the tenor of those times (maybe with a little embarrassment at the over-reaction), and most likely will see a little something of themselves in the characters on stage.

The play centers on Gretchen, a Southern California housewife with a husband who is trying to get his company's IPO to float (not so easy after the tech bubble burst and maybe post-Enron as well) and two kids with the conditions du jour: ADD, bulimia, cutting. To help their son with math, they hire a tutor who is quite the linguist as well. He says his name is Matthew St. Germaine, but is it?

Gretchen and Matthew fall into an affair, and things proceed from there. The dialogue is for the most part natural-sounding and funny, and the play is cleverly plotted. How cleverly, you don't realize until the very end, so I'll say no more. Frequently, characters directly address the audience, which can be a little too precious in some plays, but here it turns out to be perfectly appropriate.

Catherine Butterfield is a TV writer as well as a theatrical one, and it shows in the rapid scene changes she writes. These are something you can do easily on film or video, but it takes a lot of ingenuity to pull it off on stage. The scenes shift quickly among Gretchen's kitchen, her bedroom, Matthew's bedroom, a toy store, an anthrax seminar, Gretchen's analyst's office, etc. Nothing is more deadly to a play than making the audience wait even thirty seconds for a scene change, so director Joann Danella, set designer Bob Byers and stage manager Anthony Alden deserve a big round of applause for keeping things flowing seamlessly and rapidly.

The lead role of Gretchen is played by Taunya Crilly, from whom I have come to expect perfection, and she doesn't disappoint here. She is pitch-perfect as a woman being driven over the edge, and she even pulls off the one scene in which the writing seems too facile: her analyst asks her what she's afraid of, and she rattles off about twenty disparate things which nobody could think up on the spot, including stuff like "modern art" and "Star Trek."

Stephen Zamora and Kelle Senyé are effective as her husband and sister. Michael Girlamo looks the part of Matthew and is always sympathetic but he somewhat underplays the role. He projects sincerity well, but not a lot else. Pete Alden does some sort of Teutonic accent as the psychoanalyst, but why do analysts have to have accents even in 2002 in California? Because we expect them to, and it's funnier that way. Jill Stacey is wonderful as a sourpuss toy store employee, among other small parts.

Again, congratulations to Joann Danella for finding this rather obscure but worthy play and assembling a cast that does it justice, and to the Aux Dog for taking a chance on it. We all lucked out.

The Sleeper by Catherine Butterfield is being performed at the Aux Dog Theatre, on Monte Vista just north of Central, in Albuquerque, from August 31 to September 16, 2012. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info and reservations at www.auxdog.com or 505-254-7716.

--Dean Yannias



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