You must be skillful with Sept. 11; its power and its place in our national consciousness are such that using it to your own ends, as playwright Catherine Butterfield tries to do in The Sleeper, is difficult.
Directed by artistic director Andrew Barnicle, her play The Sleeper, now at Laguna Playhouse, is set in an all-too-comfortable suburbia, where housewife Gretchen (Amy Tribbey) settles into a post-9/11 schedule of being neglected by her stock market-obsessed husband Bill (Tim Meinelschmidt), coordinating her children's school-sponsored TADs (Terrorist Alert Days), visiting with her actress sister Vivien (Clarinda Ross) and attending community education anthrax awareness courses. It's after one of these classes that Gretchen meets Matthew (Ray DeJohn), a math tutor whose attentions first focus on Gretchen's son's success in school and later shift to his "Bunny," the affectionate name he calls Gretchen as he holds her in his arms and explains his love for her. The affair awakens Gretchen from her suburban coma, only to arouse her suspicions that black-bearded Matthew is a terrorist.
But the setting—using the aftermath of 9/11 as a backdrop for quiet desperation—just doesn't work here. Butterfield fails to create a reality strong enough to support the weight of our post-9/11 Zeitgeist. I'm not saying it isn't good to laugh at ourselves and the absurdly pervasive fear now poisoning our everyday lives; I just think that using this powerful event to contextualize a play leaves no room for the flawed script or faulty performances we see here.
Tribbey's voice-quivering performance as Gretchen adequately evokes a lost suburban housewife's tension and panic, but she otherwise exhibits minimal control over her character—turning Gretchen into a madwoman instead of an Everywoman. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, DeJohn's Matthew is largely empty, making no sincere connection to Gretchen—and yet we are expected to believe they're having a torrid love affair.
Which is key: without a believable illicit affair to carry the plot, Gretchen and Matthew quickly become one-dimensional characters in a 9/11-themed dark comedy—and as such, are greatly overshadowed by their settings. Sleeper proves only that when a peripheral plot element intended as play context overcomes the narrative's driving force—and becomes the centerpiece of the play itself—even the most well-funded and beautifully staged production can suffer. As does The Sleeper.
THE SLEEPER AT LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-2787. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 19. $20-$59.