Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling

*published on Oct 13, 2011 in EDGE

Adam Rapp is a new playwright of wild, wide, wonderful talent and sometimes I wish they distributed a skeleton key to his metaphors, symbols, and intentions along with the program. That said, I am still open to be in thrall of the characters and the way the work makes me think, especially if I am left pondering meanings long after the performance has concluded.

Rapp’s newest play, “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling,” is directed by Neil Pepe and produced by the Atlantic Theater Company, where Pepe has been the artistic director since 1992. It is presented with the audience sitting on three sides of a lush, suburban dining room, (well-considered by designers Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata) installed at the Classic Stage Company’s comfortable space on East 13th Street.

Christine Lahti, Cotter Smith, and Reed Birney in Adam Rapp’s "Dream of Flying, Dreams of Falling" (Source:Kevin Thomas Garcia)

The work resembles a 21st century incarnation of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. There are three couples. The first is Sandra Cabot, pronounced SOndra, the mistress of the house (played with knife sharp precession and pitch perfect characterization by Christine Lahti) and SOndra’s husband Dr. Bertram Cabot, played as a wishy-washy foil for Lahti’s edge and ire by the very competent, meek-assuming Reed Birney.

They are joined by their neighbors Dirk and Celeste Von Stefenberg for a dinner party somewhere close to New Haven, where both men attended Yale and rowed crew. The men regale the audience with two versions of the fight song, the wan and weary, “Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow, Eli Yale.”

Dirk is portrayed well, stiff upper lip and all that, by Cotter Smith, and we learn he was involved in one of the many financial scandals making their way through our society. Yet Dirk is unbowed, it seems, by the taint. He wears his Nantucket “reds” with a worn pride and allows both Sandra and Bert to poke him to test his still rock-hard abs.

Dirk’s wife is the meek Celeste who attempts to give tiny pats and props to all comers for good works, nice Chanel suits, or a well-trained maid. Betsy Adams as Celeste makes the audience pity her or want to warn her of the plans swirling around the dining table. While she murmurs empty platitudes, her husband and neighbor plot.

The plots flow from Sandra, (the Martha-like character from Virginia Woolf), drinking nearly a hand’s worth of fingers of single malt while flirting shamelessly with Dirk and inveigling him to kill Bert so they can run away together.

An expert multitasker, Sandra is also attempting to elevate her maid to become a French-speaking, Shakespeare-spouting savant who is alternately banished and summoned by intercom to clear, recite, speak, rinse, and repeat. The maid, Wilma, is played with a slight seethe, resign, and great comic timing by Quincy Tyler Bernstine.

Even when hauling dead geese down to the basement to feed the female lion (yes, you read that right), Wilma has the calm and collected disdain that wordlessly says, “Whatever you rich, white people want. You are all crazy anyway.”

The final guests at the dinner are the children of the two couples: Cora Cabot, a will-o-the-wisp played with a backbone of steel and the libido of a porn star. She comically embarks on an art project where she collects arm hairs from all the guests.

Katherine Waterston convinces us of her lust and desire while waltzing shoeless around the dining room. Cora ogles and finally copulates with the Von Stofenberg’s son James on the dining table where the remains of an uneaten goose teeter on a platter.

James’ entrance has been heralded by sotto voce conversations where we learn he has been in Stockbridge recovering for two years. Many of a certain generation learned that Stockbridge was code for rehab when James Taylor sang about it. In limps James to join the group for dinner, dragging a cane, his hand swathed in bandages.

Shane McRae works James with painfully shy discomfort and he rises to the occasion to shove Cora into the serving table, across chairs, and finally onto the table, where poor hapless Wilma is attempting to clear. He entangles the maid, a dining chair, and the audience into laughter by the silly hijinx. (The bandaged arm is disconcerting; if he flung himself off a building in a suicide attempt two years ago, why is he still bandaged?)

But this is a small conundrum compared to the literal and symbolic lion in the basement whose milk has been used to concoct a crème brulee, which all the guests pass on, as they are too full of the specially-sourced goose.

Throughout the play geese hit the windows or pummel the roof and guests discuss dreams of flying off to exotic places or just falling out of the mundane lives that trap any and all of us.

Arriving at the theater by way of the Occupy Wall Street Protests in Washington Square Park, I was particularly taken by the subplot in which the fallen banker Dirk seems to finally punish himself by protecting his Yale crewmate, but we are never sure what befalls him.

In “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” there is often laughter, and a nearly farcical sense of coming and going, well wrought by director Neil Pepe. But underneath it all roils the malignant unrest of the rich, and those who serve or are sucked into their orbits.

“Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” plays through October 30 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. For info or tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit http://atlantictheater.org/

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