Ken Urban’s thought-provoking, intricately constructed The Awake succeeds in cloaking elements of melodrama in dark modernism. It presents dream-and-reality dualities that reflect our topsy-turvy, almost fantastical post-9/11 world in which we pursue our everyday lives and ambitions and pleasures in the face of climate disasters, secret prisons, and NSA surveillance, even as its story takes on some of those scary matters directly.
Disorientation sets in as we enter 59E59’s tiny Theater C and walk across a reflective floor that doesn’t appear to be there at all. Unease continues as we meet three main characters whose scenes and situations don’t appear connected. An aspiring writer named Malcolm (Andy Phelan) with an unhealthy attachment to his mother; a dark-skinned young man undergoing torture in some kind of black ops lock-up (Maulik Pancholy of TV’s 30 Rock); and an actress from an unnamed Eastern European country (Lori Prince) shudder between nightmares and nightmarish realities.
Malcolm dreams of a cataclysmically flooded world. He and his mother are drifting across their underwater town on a bed, and the dream only gradually lifts to reveal their actual, even sadder situation. By contrast, we’re privy right away to Nate’s and Gabrielle’s dreams. Aside from switching between wakefulness and sleep, the three stories retain their own complexities and fail, like real life, to fall into neat parallels. Gabrielle’s Stepford-like home life rings as false as any of the dreams, while Nate’s schoolteacher dream carries only a touch of an anxiety and in fact seems to hold the promise of a peaceful life.
The production artfully maintains tension between inducing our emotional involvement and keeping us detached in a cold, modern way. When Gabrielle performs a simple action – opening a box, flipping a switch – Prince, while giving a vivid and colorful performance, doesn’t mime it. Instead it is merely described in words, and then, sometimes with the aid of a sound cue, it happens. When Nate’s interrogator (Jeff Biehl) strikes him, we see only the reaction (e.g. Nate’s fall), not the blow.
Eventually, and in surprising ways, the three threads do link up, providing the dramatic payoff audiences yearn for. But conclusions remain elusive for at least two of the main characters, and in the case of Gabrielle – is that even her real name? – the end left me uncertain.
Nonetheless, via the intensive performances from the cast of seven, the crystalline script, and the production’s thoughtful polish, all three earn our empathy, and they do so well before the concluding scenes, which include a thrilling monologue from Gabrielle, who indeed has many of the best lines throughout. (“I was supposed to go to my husband’s work today to meet him and the daughter. She is crazy psycho bitch who builds killing machines.”) “Something happens inside me,” she intones near the end, in her indeterminate Balkan-sounding accent. “Robert enters the scene and sees me. It is my cue. Time to cry. But I need no memory, the picture is my memory.” And she remembers a poem “all about how silly it is to dream of dull things like houses in snow and a child and a husband/But it is not silly is it?”
As effective, in a different way, is Nate’s chilling admission, as the action draws to a close and he finds himself, in spite of himself, on the other side of the black-ops curtain, and thinks of the man who subjected him to so much anguish: “I do his job for him now.”
Melodramatic? To a degree. But tastefully so, and also innovative, well-conceived, well-played, compelling, and highly recommended. At 59E59 through Sept. 8.