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Dreams of Friendly Aliens

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Gene Gallerano and Jamie C. Ward
Photo by Kim T. Sharp

A single moment, frozen in time, is the alpha and omega for the characters in Dreams of Friendly Aliens, the play by Daniel Damiano that the Abingdon Theatre Company is producing at its Dorothy Strelsin Theatre. The day Maria Chavarra vanished was the last memorable one for the family she left behind, who have ever since been locked in a cycle of feelings and events that keep them trapped there forever. How easy it is to understand what they're suffering - it often seems that Damiano's play will never, ever end.

Gene Gallerano, Jamie C. Ward, and Lenore Loveman
Photo by Kim T. Sharp

Set seven months after Maria's fateful trip to the grocery store, the play attempts to deconstruct the nature of grief by examining how the remaining Chavarras are coping (or not) with not knowing the truth. Maria's husband Jesse (Jamie C. Ward) has set up permanent camp by the telephone, son Max (Gene Gallerano) has begun acting out in school, and the mental state of mother Fretta (Lenore Loveman) has so deteriorated that she can only rattle off the same five or six disconnected phrases.

"We need Bisquick," she barks, "and the raisin bran without the raisins." (Further mumblings about sex, drugs, and violence, veal shank, and eggplant, will not be reprinted here.) Jesse and Max don't speak in such maddeningly repetitive short form, but their interactions are essentially limited to fights that, like Fretta's recitations, you sense have already unfolded hundreds of times. Jesse wants to help the violently but silently grieving Max, who's begun acting like a rapper and who clings to his belief that his mother has been abducted by aliens, but can't unglue himself from the phone or even step outside. How a major plot twist can involve Jesse's pulling himself together long enough to visit Max's guidance counselor is never really explained.

Jamie C. Ward and Maureen Griffin
Photo by Kim T. Sharp

It doesn't have to be. In pushing intensely painful and personal moments to their most outwardly exaggerated extremes, Damiano has already demonstrated his commitment to avoiding reality. If on some level that puts him in line with his characters, it's worth noting they're not playwrights tackling one of the most sensitive of all human issues. Damiano's handling of situations ranging from drug abuse to fixing breakfast to visits from the police is often so light it's practically satirical. This doesn't reveal any comedy within the tragedy, but rather suggests yet another way of avoiding dealing head-on with the inevitability of human mortality.

That might make an interesting play in itself, but it's not the one Damiano has written. As directed by Kim T. Sharp and performed by this cast, Dreams of Friendly Aliens could be a sitcom pilot directed by Twin Peaks impresario David Lynch playing in an infinite loop. Any potential moments of cleverness of insight are defused as soon as they appear, usually by Jesse's relentless, untethered whining or Fretta's shopping list of orphan memories, all without ever building on or elevating the play above its first scene.

Lenore Loveman and Jamie C. Ward
Photo by Kim T. Sharp

Whether this complete dramatic inertness is intentional or not is never clear from the performances which, aside from Griffin's warmly likable but underused guidance counselor, are either dead-on brilliant or dead on arrival: It's possible that Ward's consistent (and grating) level of mania, Loveman's undeveloping catatonia, and Gallerano's frozen rebellious-teen anger could just be Sharp's way of showing how these people have been unable to progress emotionally since learning of Maria's disappearance. If that's the case - and it's a big if - it's more high-concept than anything else Damiano has devised.

Far more representative are Loveman's and Griffin's characters' last names: Nutella and Ricotta, respectively. In other words, the old lady whose brain collapsed in sorrow for her daughter is nutty, and the one person capable of recognizing and averting the Chavarras' impending self-destruction is cheesy. None of the other endlessly repeating words in Dreams of Friendly Aliens says as much - or as little.

Dreams of Friendly Aliens
Through April 1
Abington Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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