The Lucid Dreamers


at Live Bait Theater

Like New York playwright Len Jenkin, Chicago’s David Hauptschein is drawn to a twilight world of coincidence and synchronicity, where the boundaries between conscious and unconscious, sense and nonsense, chance and destiny continually blur. It comes as no surprise that Hauptschein calls surrealism “the most important art movement of this century–not because they produced great art but because they used the subconscious as a point of inspiration.” But while Jenkin fabricates delightfully confused, seductively ominous carnival rides for the mind, Hauptschein rarely pushes beyond a rather studied intrusion of the dream world upon waking life. However, when he rolls up his sleeves and gets down to the basics of playwriting, surrealism be damned, he blows Jenkin–and most other contemporary playwrights–out of the water.

Two of Hauptschein’s plays–the first of his scripts to be produced, running at Live Bait as part of the Annual David Hauptschein Theatre Festival–reveal the extremes of his abilities as a playwright. The Lucid Dreamers, a “kitchen sink surrealist play” about a stereotypically myopic American family plagued by disturbing dreams, mysterious illnesses, and noxious odors, is as flat and lifeless as its sterile suburban setting despite Hauptschein’s repeated attempts to keep things freakily unpredictable. Trance, by contrast, is a mesmerizing family tragedy solidly constructed in the traditional ways; only when Hauptschein again tries to inject heavy doses of freakiness does he lose focus.

The performances of Ann Jennings, who stars in both productions, illustrate the strengths of Trance and the weaknesses of The Lucid Dreamers. As the desperately miserable Toby in Trance, disabled by her unaccountably paralyzed hands, Jennings delivers a blistering performance that reaches an explosive climax at the end of the first act when she tears her apartment–and herself–to shreds in a torrent of rage and self-hatred. But as the out-of-touch mother in The Lucid Dreamers, who thinks her pregnant daughter is just putting on a little extra weight in one particular spot, she seems lost, curiously disconnected from her character and the other actors. If you were unfortunate enough to see only The Lucid Dreamers, you might have wondered how much Jennings paid the director to cast her.

But deeply intuitive actors like Jennings don’t “rise above” weak material, as the cliche goes. Instead they sink so far into it–as they do into strong material–that their performances become litmus tests for a playwright’s or director’s shortcomings. On the occasions when I directed Lookingglass’s magnificently intuitive Philip R. Smith, his “bad” rehearsals invariably revealed the weaknesses in my direction. Actors like Smith and Jennings are the most honest performers you’ll ever see, because they’re unable to ignore the profound structural problems most actors work so hard to sidestep.

Jennings’s out-of-focus mother in The Lucid Dreamers makes clear that Hauptschein forgot to create the foundation of the play: real characters. The actors may refer to one another in familial terms, but their relationships never go beyond words. All the nuances of family interaction are strangely absent. Real-life family members, with their intertwined histories and psychologies, can’t help but deeply influence one another’s behaviors and emotions, as all of us know from watching ourselves “disappear” when Mom stops by for lunch. Hauptschein’s family seem nearly oblivious to one another, a disconnectedness that may be intentional on some level, underscoring the bloodless banality of suburban America. But it leaves the characters floating in a theatrical void, where precious little affects them. Only the disturbing effects of an increasingly bizarre world on the family are left to hold the play together.

Trance, on the other hand, holds together with the tenacity of a family on the brink of collapse. That family is the Fleeglers, led by the luckless but bighearted entrepreneur wannabe Howard, who understands reality solely through statistical analysis. After his wife’s disappearance nine months ago, his daughter Toby mysteriously lost the use of her hands, leaving him and his bitter, unemployably punked-out daughter Mercury to save the crumbling family. Howard has sunk most of his life savings into “fortune pencils,” which have messages tucked underneath the erasers, and he puts Mercury to work stuffing little slips of paper into tiny wooden tubes all day. He’s also invited an old friend of his wife–a hypnotherapist–to his home in a last-ditch attempt to cure Toby of her infirmity.

Unlike most playwrights exploring the corrupt power relations in the dysfunctional American family, Hauptschein steers clear of melodrama, sentimentality, and kitsch. Instead, without ever losing his sense of humor, he digs in and confronts the brutal extremes to which pathological interdependence can drive people. As Toby’s hands suggest, this family is paralyzed and useless–usually these people sit around thinking about what they’re going to do, when they get around to it–continually tearing into one another in an endless cycle of aggression and regression. In each scene Hauptschein expertly builds the tension and the stakes, until Toby’s horrifying breakdown seems a near inevitability.

As Toby’s therapist makes clear, repressed trauma can often lead to physical incapacity. But intelligently, Hauptschein doesn’t try to pin down this family’s crisis to a single decisive event–the mother’s desertion, for example. Instead, with exquisite subtlety he shows how years of self-absorption and isolation within the family–following perverted ideals of “family life”–have led them into a morass of helplessness and injury. Hauptschein’s skillful dramatization of an all-too-familiar pattern of family disintegration, in which the most destructive events are often the least visible, separates his play from hundreds less insightful.

By the middle of the second act the family has reached such a crisis point that a police detective must be called in to try to unearth their buried demons. Hauptschein cleverly uses the detective’s outsider status to parody the typical American expectation of finding a single explanation for a complex problem (here an actual smoking gun stuffed under the sofa cushions). However, the appearance of another outsider–Mercury’s Charles Manson-like boyfriend, whose arrival Toby eerily predicts–gives Hauptschein too easy an out. His great strength is his ability to allow the family to rot from within, in the manner of the great playwright on the American family, Sam Shepard. The boyfriend’s intrusion cuts this process off. If Hauptschein can find a means of allowing decay to reach its natural conclusion, he’ll have one dynamite work on his hands.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laura Furniss.