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A CurtainUp Review
Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling

Production Notes
I’ve only ever had one dream. When I was twelve. — Dirk
What was it about? — Sandra
I dreamed that I could fly. It was night and the stars were huge. When I passed through the Milky Way there was music. Trombones mostly. Like Fourth of July parade music. I could see the sun silvering the horizon. I breathed in a star. I’ve never felt so free.
— Dirk
Dreams of Flying. . .
A scene from Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling
(Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia)

Like squadrons of Kamikaze pilots, gaggles of Canadian geese are suddenly dive-bombing the side of an opulent Connecticut home. Is this a planned or instinctive suicide mission, a baffling, unknowable phenomenon, or the result of an inexplicable change in their nature? But are these creatures the only ones suddenly compelled to fall from flight, hints that nature may be staging a revolt against man in Adam Rapp’s new playfully horrifying, socio-political, stylishly surreal, black comedy Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling?

Yes, it is all that and more, given Rapp’s intention to speculate both metaphysically and metaphorically on the unavoidable consequences of uncurbed affluence — and the unbridled influence of the super rich among us, and on the devastation they have recklessly and selfishly fostered on our planet and on all living things through greed.

Through an unfiltered prism of abstracted absurdity, Rapp has created six complex, and confounding characters. They are members of two families that define an elitist part of our society who are destined to fall from grace with a loud thud. Then, as in the best of dark comedies, there is the very normal maid.

Beyond all the metaphoric illusions and conclusions that you may draw on your own, with or without help from Rapp, there is a terrific cast. Under Neil Pepe’s assured direction they display all the idiosyncrasies and anomalies of characters consigned to making sure that this is going to be a dinner party to remember, give or take a few dead geese and others.

Within the ultra wealthy home where a grand dinner party has been planned, beautiful, trim and looking trés chic in her glittery Chanel suit, Sandra Cabot (Christine Lahti) cues the first hearty laughs with her meticulous, detailed serving instructions — some integrated with French 101 phrases — to Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the new maid.

Sandra and her husband Bertram (Reed Birney) have invited the Von Stofenberg family: Dirk, his friend since college days (Cotter Smith), his wife Celeste (Betsy Aidem)), and their son James (Shane McRae) who has recently returned home following two years at a psychiatric treatment facility. James’s misguided belief that he could fly following the instructions he got in a dream from some toys would naturally be viewed by his parents and the medical professionals as an intended suicide.

In recovery now, James finds himself drawn in kinship to his former close friend, the Cabots' pretty,but also very strange, possibly unstable, daughter Cora (an entrancing (Katherine Waterston) who, without any doubt, has had her wings clipped. She achieves something close to flying again when she is flung by the lust-driven James onto the formally set dining room table to engage in the funniest sex scene that I can recall seeing.

Except for what is bound to surface, the adults appear secure in their otherwise clueless, privatized, self-deluding have-it-all world. Lahti gives a stunning performance as the implacably glib, condescendingly guileless Sandra. When given the opportunity, she makes no bones about wanting to jump on the good-looking Dirk’s sturdy bones. Smith gives a finely nuanced performance as Dirk, who soon enough finds himself contemplating abetting a crime as heinous as the one he has already committed as a Wall Street wheeler-dealer.

Birney is splendid as the calmly reticent Bert, who seems to go along with Sandra’s mystifying and mortifying obsessions. . . like keeping a collection of rare and wild animals in their especially equipped basement. (Anyone for crème de brulée made with lion’s milk?) As Dirk’s wife Cora, it is enough to see the pain in Aidem’s face as she looks at the two men in her life: the husband/father who claims that the only dream he ever had was to fly, and the son who believed that his dreams of flying could be his reality.

Standing quite delightfully in the light of this dark comedy is Bernstine. As Wilma she flies, if only metaphorically, with dignity outside the restraining vicissitudes of her incorrigible employer, but within the elegant dining room setting designed by Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata.

Not being one to automatically think of biblical scripture to help me grasp or perhaps better understand the meaning of what I’m seeing, this one surfaced (at first, in my own words): Then God said, "let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground." Perhaps Rapp is suggesting here that man’s reign may be near its end, that perhaps “it is payback time” for all the cruelty we have inflicted on all things living.

This play is a distinct departure from the style and themes that have been seen in his previous extremely grim and gritty plays (See Elyse Sommer's Wrapup of Adam Rapp's Oeuvre which have perhaps made it too easy for us to fall into the love it/hate it trap.

There will be those who see Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling as pretentious, a deliberate swipe at Edward Albee’s often inscrutable plays, or as a smart aleck denunciation of A.R. Gurney’s upper crusties. My reason for admiring this new play more than anything by Rapp that I’ve previously seen, is simply because it is devilishly funny and deviously profound.

Production Notes

A Wrapup of Adam Rapp's Oeuvre by Elyse Sommer
Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling moves Adam Rapp's story telling from typical for him lower -depth grunge to suburban dinner party with fine wine and roast goose served by an African American maid whose salary includes French lessons. So has Rapp really traded his bad boy, often hard to fathom playwriting persona to become a well-mannered WASPy Gurney-ian?

The answer is, of course, no, This new play, like most that preceded it, will still divides audiences (and, yes, critics) into those who love his theatrical derring-do, and those who would duck out at intermission if there was one.

Though I found Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling intriguing and the actors superb, I was less smitten than my colleague Simon by all the symbolic puzzle pieces dished up with the roast goose to help us make sense of the beautiful but beastly hostess, her docile husband, the daughter who spends her self-imposed confinement in the family manse collecting hair samples for a metaphysical art project, and the equally dysfunctional guests. I left the theater still hoping to see Rapp cure himself once and for all from his long-standing tendency to undercut his potent stories and language with too many surreal detours.

I do admire Rapp's fearless writing but I think has a way to go before being on a par with the likes of Edward Albee, whose ghost haunts this ever more hellish dinner party. Perhaps my mixed feelings are best explained by taking a look back at this playwright's trajectory from downtown grunge to productions at Off-Broadway's most prestigious theater companies.

Rapp certainly can't be faulted for not working at his craft. He's well on the way to being as prolific as Kilgore Trout, a character who wrote 209 books in Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, one of Rapp's favorite novelists authors. The prolific Adam Rapp is likely to end up rivaling Trout's output -- certainly, more successfully so given his record of being produced and published. Since at age 42 he's already written (and often directed) more than twenty plays it's not impossible that Rapp will exceed Kilgore Trout's output -- and that's without factoring in his numerous young adult novels, graphic novels and movie work.

In the course of the ten years during which Curtainup has reviewed Rapp's plays, his status as a hot downtown playwright has won him a loyal following. Even when these young theater goers don't always quite get what Rapp is up to, they tend to be delighted rather than repelled by the grim, grungy world he depicts, a world in which characters take drugs, spout expletives and often cringe inducing behavior like urinating and masturbating on stage. (Could this be the influence of his favorite dead novelist who at one point in Breakfast of Champions wrote "People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn't own doodley-squat so they couldn't improve their surroundings."

While I and other Curtainup critics have shared the excitement of seeing the work of a gifted and powerful storyteller, we've also often been disappointed with shortcomings relating to structure or excessive graphic detail devolving into surreal muddles. Nocturne (reviews of all plays mentioned linked below) , my first Rapp encounter was hampered by a more literary than dramatic structure. Les Gutman was sorry to see Rapp squander the compelling set-up of Stone Cold and Serious by allowing himself to wind up getting lost with too many detours. The author's indulgence in graphical detail was very much in evidence in a pair of 2002 plays, Faster and Treblinka; and even more so in Finer Noble Gases. While some of our readers were apalled by the abject squalor that drama depicted, Jenny Sandman, who before moving away from New York was Rapp's most ardent fan at Curtainup, found it funny, if in a grisly sort of way.

While Blackbird in 2004 marked a departure from the usually squalid Rapp landscapes, it was no less depressing and again overly explicit. Les Gutman once again found himself impressed with the beautifully crafted and keenly observed language but also disappointed that the play, like its predecessors was plagued by being wordy and at times insufficiently grounded in maintaining its dramatic tension.

In 2006, with Red Light Winter, that Rapp finally found his footing. Though still a far cry from the slick suburban setting of Dreams of Flying Dreams of Dying, this compelling story about the perils of unrequited love was extremely moving. It was also the first of his plays that was accessible to a wider audience and a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.

That almost-Pulitzer and the accessibility was the beginning of Rapp's move closer to expanding his fan base and having his work seen by more mainstream audiences. Beith the incredibly productive writer he is, Rapp managed to still do two off-off-Broadway plays in 2007 (American Sligo & Bingo With Indians) and also move further uptown and closer to mainstream with Essential Self Defense at Playwrights Horizon. While Playwrights Horizon gave it a lovely production this proved to be a bit too uptown for his downtown fans and too grim and befuddling to live up to the producers breakthrough ambitions. Still Playwrights Horizon followed up with Rapp's Kindness a rather gentle and quite heart-wrenching play even though it got rolling by having his central character frantically masturbating as he's watching a porn movie.

The journey to more prestigious productions and Rapp's reputation as a significant writer continued with The Metal Children at the Vineyard with its box office casting of Billy Crudup for a fanciful fun descent into a mid-America rabbit hole that was nevertheless more realistic and easy to understand than most of the playwright's growing oeuvre. Last year's Hallway Trilogy took Rapp back to his favorite and most supportive off-off Broadway stamping ground, the Rattlestick. However, it was clearly an attempt for downtown theater to catch a ride on the bandwagon of New Yorkers embrace of all day theater as a must-see event (e.g. Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy and Horton Foote's Orphans Home Cycle). The Rattlestick actually reconfigured its very modest walk-up space to accommodate the three location-connected plays and it was indeed a quite popular event, though the critical response was mixed.

Another increasingly popular format is to present a play in a site specific setting, the much extended Sleep No More is the most successful current case in point. But Adam Rapp is also represented within this format his Animals and Plants one of two one-acts of Hotel/Motel heading towards the end of a popular run at the Gershwin Hotel as I write this

To bring this roundup to the Atlantic Theater's venture into Rapp's universe, it's undoubtedly the playwright's most different looking play ever. The handsome dining table that dominated Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling on the stage of the Atlantic's temporary home (their newly restored Chelsea theater is expected to open in time for the season's final plays), may remind CSC subscribers of a similar table in their recent Three Sisters. But things may look different, but according to the playwright's r'aison d'etre for his plays and novels as published in the program notes for one of his plays is to show " people trying to find refuge in chaos." This focus remains unchanged. The Cabots and VonStofenbergs sure could use refuge from their inner turmoils and the chaos their affluent, self-involved life styles have created. While Mr. Rapp has dished up plenty of chaos, it's not easy to connect emotionally with the people gathered around his fancy dinner table. If I were Wilma, I'd look for another job.

Links to Adam Rapp plays reviewed at Curtainup
Nocturne NY Theatre Workshop, 2001
Faster Rattlestick 2002
TrueblinkaMaverick Theater 2002
Stone Cold Dead Serious Edge Theater Company 2003
Finer Noble Gases Rattlestick 2004
Blackbird Blue Heron Arts Center 2004
Red Light Winter 2006 Steppenwolf Production at Barrow Street 2006
American Sligo Rattlestick 2007
Bingo With Indians Flea Theater 2007
Essential Self-Defense Playwrights Horizon 2007
Spin/ part of a one-act collection Cherry Lane 2008
Kindness Playwrights Horizon 2008
The Metal Children Vineyard 2010
The Hallway Trilogy/ Adam Rapp Rattlestick 2011
HotelMotel Gershwin Hotel 2011)

Production Notes
Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling by Adam Rapp
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Betsy Aidem (Celeste Von Stofenberg), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Wilma), Reed Birney (Dr. Bertram Cabot), Christine Lahti (Sandra Cabot), Shane McRae (James Von Stofenberg)), Cotter Smith (Dirk Von Stofenberk), and Katherine Waterston (Cora Cabot).
Sets: Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce
Costumes: Teheresa Squite Lighting: Tyler Micoleau Original music & sound: David Van Tieghem
Stage Manager: Erin Maureen Koster
Running Time: Approx. 80 minutes
Atlantic Theater Company at Classic Stage 136 East 13th Street
From 9/09/11; opening 10/03/11; closing 10/23/11
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on 9/30/11 performance
Additional Thoughts Feature by Elyse Sommer based on 9/29/11performance
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