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Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Reed Birney, Christine Lahti, Cotter Smith, Betsy Aidem, Shane McRae, and Katherine Waterston.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

If you've attended Off-Broadway plays regularly the last decade or so, you've no doubt discerned the Adam Rapp Formula. Take a family (or group of friends) that's sort of like yours but not quite, anchor them to a communal room in a dwelling located on what appears to be an oasis of sanity in a world parched with despair, then shake it all up with confounded relationships between bitter characters who are unwilling converts to the cult of consumerism. Because most of Rapp's plays adhere to this basic outline, only a few details typically differentiate one from another or the good from the bad. With Rapp's new play Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, being presented at the Classic Stage Company in an Atlantic Theater Company production, at least the particulars lean toward the positive side.

These include the unusually tony setting of an upscale dining room (the crisp, creamy design of Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata), direction by Neil Pepe that finds a stiff air of plausibility amid a series of unlikely (and intractable) events, and Reed Birney giving one of the greatest Rapp performances ever in a role unworthy of the honor. Birney's cast mates, who include Christine Lahti, Cotter Smith, and Katherine Waterston, don't fare as well, but even their off-kilter offness operates generally in the favor of this vague deconstruction of the apparent perfection of the super-rich.

The extent to which you'll be captivated by what unfolds—and what precisely that is isn't easy to say—depends on how compelling you find the premise. In one sense, it's shopworn: Two wealthy Connecticut families are as liable as the lower classes they strenuously avoid to fall prey to base desires and impulses such as sex, revenge, and murder. The Cabot matriarch, Sandra (Lahti), is a well-heeled monster who insists her new African-American maid, Wilma (a fine Quincy Tyler Bernstine), speak only French while serving, and induces her long-time crush Dirk Von Stofenberg (Cotter Smith) to help her poison her stifling husband, Bertram (Birney). That they're having a dinner party tonight, with Dirk's wife Celeste (Betsy Aidem) and son James (Shane McRae) joining Sandra, Bertram, and their daughter Cora (Waterston), only simplifies things.

From a technical standpoint, this is a bland, will-he-or-won't-he murder mystery that reaches its foreseeable conclusion with only a modicum of fuss. Rapp does, however, supercharge all the fuss there is, ensuring that we know the two families are presiding over something much greater than they can even comprehend. Why, for example, is the front yard teeming with Canadian geese? Why is there so much talk about a lion living in the basement, when every sensible person knows such a thing is impossible? And why is the torrid mating ritual performed by James and Cora rendered as if it's being enacted by rabid hyenas?

Seen through the lens of these upper-crusters being just as animalistic as we are—even more so, because they go even further to deny their natural inclinations—it all jells. The spectacle of good society people behaving as badly as they can always exudes a strange pull (how else to explain prime-time soaps throughout TV history?), and set against the relative normality of the working-girl maid who must figuratively and literally clean up their mess there's dramatic validity to the concept.

The only lingering question is one of follow-through. Rapp delivers on it in terms of pure narrative, particularly in the wild final fifteen 15 minutes or so, but not so much overall cohesion. The halting dialogue, every stitch of which sounds like its speaker is aware of the full weight of the universe's gravity pressing on him or her, does not flow naturally from these people's personalities; most of them cut such firm and upright figures that Rapp's brand of vocally emotional muddiness seldom seems at home. Likewise, the absurd idiosyncrasies from which this playwright's characters are always built are more strained than usual; someone of Cora's station working on an art project composed of multiple people's arm hair? Not likely.

The difficulties reconciling these unfamiliar characters with Rapp's own signature gimmickry is mirrored in the direction, with Pepe's effective stage pictures overwhelming the pacing that might keep the action moving at a decent clip, and the performances. Lahti, personifying stuffiness too well, is the prime victim here, her rigidly intelligent portrayal of a woman at the end of her frustration rope too spaced out to fit into her unhinged surroundings. The same problem afflicts Waterston, who more recognizably channels a hopped-up drug dealer than a mixed-up teenager. Smith, playing a straight-up military type, and McRae as his injured son, are better, conjuring the terrestrial side of the equation by projecting that these men's inner souls are too frightened to ever soar through the heavens.

Only Birney blends the two worlds without the hint of a seam, representing with engaging Everyman depth both the lord of the manor and the scared servant boy unaware of the degree to which his fate rests in the hands of disinterested others. Bearing an utterly earnest fatherly geniality, Birney communicates just as much the specialness that suggests Bertram deserves what he's attained as he does the waspish nobody who's driven Sandra over the brink.

Given the importance of Bertram in the scope of the show it's odd that the role itself doesn't play a more suffocating central role. Still, in Birney's hands, it nonetheless feels like one of the deepest Rapp has yet created: a man not merely in touch with the universe around him, but in fact woven from the very fabric of it. That's what's chiefly responsible for keeping Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling aloft as it, like its characters, tries to make sense of what it's about despite not understanding the vagaries of the fascinating foreign language it speaks.

Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling
Through October 30
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Running Time: 80 minutes no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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