John Patrick Shanley’s florid drama the dreamer examines his pillow has all the tangled emotion and redolent language one would expect from the writer of Moonstruck, Doubt, Savage in Limbo, and Outside Mullingar. A new revival by the Attic Theater Company is the first New York City production since the play’s Off-Broadway debut in 1986. Sensitively directed by Laura Braza at The Flea, it howls out the universal struggle to find and know oneself.
It’s the story of the agonizing love between the angst-ridden Tommy (Shane Parker Kearns) and the volatile and voluble Donna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), brought into further focus by the latter’s cocky father (a sly performance by Broadway veteran Dennis Parlato). Stormy is too weak a word for Tommy and Donna’s relationship, still a conflagration after a pause of four months during which the tormented Tommy has been carrying on with Donna’s 16-year-old kid sister. When Donna turns up at his dingy room to demand he break it off with the girl, Tommy won’t promise, but Donna is too tangled up in him to walk out, however angry she gets and however she tries.
In broad Italian-Americans-from-Queens accents the two make their brutal and persistent need for one another as plain as the dark, ugly self-portrait Tommy has nailed to his dirty wall. Among other things, Donna is panicked that she and Tommy will turn into her parents, whom we learn were also doomed by an intense love. Tommy’s more abstract anxiety bursts out in in a surrealistic monologue spoken after she leaves to the magic refrigerator that seems to be his only possession (and to contain only cans of PBR) besides a rickety bed, a couple of milk crates and a lamp with a single light bulb working.
This is difficult material for actors, mingling passages of naturalistic if emotionally charged dialogue with fanciful poetic flowerings, exposing gut feelings with a distilled and intensified honesty. For long swaths of the 90-minute one-act, the cast carries it off with a crazed, sparkling bravado. Cipoletti’s Donna is a flawless bundle of nerves and passions. Kearns’s Tommy, a stirring, spitting concoction of Sal Mineo and Ethan Hawke, falters a little only during his monologue, whose outlandish lines sometimes get the better of him and force awkward stresses.
And Parlato triumphs as Dad when Donna visits him to demand answers to some troubling questions and a favor involving Tommy. Here again, many elements of the conversation don’t depict what a real father and daughter would ever be likely to talk about, but the actors bring it off beautifully – and with humor most welcome after the intense, high-decibel first scene – thanks to their great skill and the strange surety of Shanley’s daring dialogue.
After all the fireworks, the resolution in the third scene feels too easy, not fully satisfying, mainly because the confrontation between Dad and Tommy isn’t as surefooted as the rest of the action. The actors can’t seem to get the same grip on this slippery dialogue as they did in the prior exchanges. The action has moved into the realm of absurdity here, if a happy sort. Elevated or poetic language evoking fables is one thing; taking the story itself into the fabulous is another.
Nonetheless the Attic has a winner. Artfully conceived and directed, and played with skill and panache on a simple, craftily designed and lit stage, this revival of the dreamer examines his pillow is a curious and engaging production of density and depth – and flights of fancy too. It runs through August 15 at The Flea. Visit OvationTix or call 866-811-4111 for tickets.