Dad puts love into perspective

Theatre Review / By Sean Williams

Lauren Nicole Cipoletti (Donna), Dennis Parlato (Dad) and Shane Patrick Kearns (Tommy) in a scene from “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow.”

The Attic Theater Company’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow” is an ambitious, if sometimes philosophically muddled play that is at once soul-searching and bewildering. The dialogue-driven work features a small cast—three people—and a large amount of metaphor. Set in a pair of squalid city apartments, “Dreamer” attempts to untie the parallel shoestrings of fate and romance in long-winded argument. The two pitfall-friendly protagonists in this performance are Tommy (Shane Patrick Kearns) and Donna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), on-and-off again lovers who try to reconcile their mutual existential crisis.

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This is the second revival of a play that was first staged off-Broadway in late 1986, not long before its author’s success with “Moonstruck,” for which he won a screenwriting Oscar. The Bronx native Shanley is also closely associated with the play “Doubt,” which garnered him a Pulitzer and a Tony. He went on to direct Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film version. His most recent work for the stage was “Outside Mullingar,” set in his father’s County Westmeath.

The Laura Braza-directed “Dreamer,” in contrast, opens in Tommy’s disheveled apartment, where the one defining feature is a crude, harsh self-portrait painting on the wall. Almost immediately Donna bursts in, and interrogates a drunken Tommy about dating her sister, robbing his own mother and other morally questionable activities.

The first act starts a bit slowly, as the dialogue throws the audience into the action without any background context, and a lot of it doesn’t help elaborate on the situation. There’s a lot of “I thought you loved me” talk, which is naturalistic but doesn’t help anchor the play in a scene the audience can understand. The first act closes even more bewilderingly, with Tommy delivering a lonely monologue, complete with hellish visions of his existence, to his open refrigerator.

Tommy is a beer-drinking bum who struggles to match his ethical standards with his actions. Kearns plays the part as a dopey loser, overmatched by Donna’s screechy wit. Shanley seems to have issues pairing his own eloquence with the intellect of his characters. Both Tommy and Donna will go from simplistic cursing to prolonged metaphor. The playwright is trying too hard, perhaps, when he has Donna say things like “my eyes are like the size of two dark pools of matter in the middle of an endless night.” The unorthodox monologue segments are sometimes poignant and sometimes overdrawn, but even the clumsier monologues do fit into the bizarre world of the play.

The play’s surrealistic weirdness comes to an apex in this first act, as Donna’s father (Dennis Parlato) appears in the second act to ground the play in a heart-to-heart that isn’t completely metaphysical. Parlato delivers a great performance as a cynical, heartbroken widower whose interests don’t extend much further than his glass of whiskey. His curiosity is only piqued by Donna’s assertion that Tommy is a younger version of himself, a statement that begins to glue the play’s philosophical structure together. Tommy’s similarities to “Dad” reflect the churning and inescapable nature of fate and time, where Donna’s unwilling attraction to Tommy mirrors her dead mother’s attraction to Dad.

Cipoletti commands the stage as Donna, largely due to her brash New York accent and fluttery gestures. Unlike Tommy and Dad, she appears in every act and is rather more sympathetic as a character than Tommy.

Dad then confronts Tommy, and the play ties together as these similar characters talk about their problems with love and honesty.

The play takes a while to get going, but once the third character is introduced, the conversations between Tommy and Donna in the first act have more substance in retrospect. Dad grounds the play with his experience and didactic wit, while his explanations reveal Shanley’s cyclical thesis.

“The Dreamer Examines His Pillow” is at once strange and simple. Its stories of will and love, wrapped up in the obfuscating language of personal doubt, are sure to resonate with almost any audience member. The play – though it has its flaws – concludes as a relatable, satisfying thought piece on the nature of our relationships and quest for perfection.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow” runs through Aug. 15 at the Flea Theater 41 White St., (between Broadway & Church Streets) in Downtown Manhattan. For information about tickets, go to www.theflea.org.