John Patrick Shanley has written some justifiably famous works: Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano, the stage and screen versions of Doubt. Love’s least logical forms, and the bitter messes they can create, are pretty much his thing.
But there’s a reason his 1985 love story The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, now in revival at the Flea, is not one of his best-remembered plays. Produced by the Attic Theater Company and directed by Laura Braza, Dreamer is an extended lovers’ quarrel that offers more angst than insight and culminates in a display of oddly retrograde ideas about instinct, sex, and why we do the things we do for love.
We begin in the shabby one-room apartment inhabited by Tommy (Shane Patrick Kearns) — a grungy lair with stained carpeting, cracked walls, and little furniture besides a mini-fridge stocked with beer. Enter Tommy’s semi-estranged lover, Donna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), and let the yelling commence: She’s enraged at him, specifically for sleeping with her sister, and more generally for unspecified crimes of unreliability. But she’s also madly in love. As Tommy and Donna, Kearns and Cipoletti capture the characters’ dogged determination to fight their relationship out to the end and the intensity of feeling with which they cling to their love. But the repetitive dialogue is made tougher to stomach by the performers’ sustained bellowing from beginning to end.
After a screaming match (or ten), Donna decides to seek backup from the third member of this play’s Freudian triangle: her reclusive father (Dennis Parlato). Dad’s got issues of his own, having been closeted away with his booze and his memories since the premature death of Donna’s mom. Grudgingly agreeing to take his daughter’s side against Tommy, Dad offers some pop psychology and a heavy dose of bullying to bring this relationship drama to a close.
As the play’s title suggests, underlying Shanley’s gritty realism is a surreal, dreamlike layer. The characters regularly wax poetic and both Dad and Tommy are artists, painting out their feelings of romantic confusion and grief. Alone onstage, Tommy peers into the brightly lighted interior of his mini-fridge, finding imagistic, oblique revelations in the refrigerator’s fluorescent heart. (The entire play is shades of early Sam Shepard: angrily poor but intermittently spiritual figures in a grimy landscape, with the glowing refrigerator from Curse of the Starving Class to boot.)
Alas, these associative elements only underscore the heavy-handed way Shanley psychologizes his characters. Both men paint to understand their troubled love lives and their own deep-seated limitations. And the paintings they create are wearyingly obvious reflections of the play’s romantic plot.
This turns Dreamer into a bit of an obvious boxing match between instinct and intellect, the rational versus the irrational elements of our beings. Should Donna stay with Tommy despite his mistakes? Should she be guided by her fear, or her pheromones? And can she really do anything besides repeat the patterns lived out by her parents, successes and screwups combined? DNA is destiny, Shanley suggests; we don’t really have any choice about whom to love. Of course, plays aren’t prescriptions for life, but it’s hard not to wonder what Shanley hopes we’ll do with such an inflexible philosophy: shut off our brains and let instinct guide us? Mine guided me out of the theater as soon as it possibly could.
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow
By John Patrick Shanley
The Flea Theater
41 White Street
Through August 15