Sweat Dreams

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, Lab Theater, through January 30

Sweat Dreams, the follow-up to last year’s immensely successful all-women revue I’m Sweating Under My Breasts, has a great deal more confidence: the writing’s sharper and more nuanced, and the actors tell their stories more naturally. I’m Sweating Under My Breasts was enjoyable, but only Rose Abdoo really broke through and made a personal connection. This time, just about everybody has a little epiphanic moment–some bigger than others, some with more effort than others, but all of them earnest and convincing.

Like the original, Sweat Dreams is a series of monologues written and performed by some of the local theater scene’s best and busiest female performers. All but one of the original artists have returned here–in one way an improvement, because the first show was way too long, but you can’t help but miss Abdoo, probably the most charismatic of the bunch (she got cast in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor).

As before, it’s Pamela Webster, with her dark family tale, who centers the show. Last time she tackled her own mother’s potential madness; this time she tackles motherhood from the other side, as a woman ambivalent about the whole idea–and yet there she is, surrounded by kids in the “family bed.” What Webster does with this story of birth and responsibility, society’s expectations, and our own questions about our ability to nurture is powerfully political but in such a subversive way that it never seems so. Her wry, controlled delivery extracts real laughs from difficult, oddball topics, such as how big her labia got after childbirth.

As in the original, the structure of Sweat Dreams is straightforward: each actor performs an apparently autobiographical piece, and each monologue is introduced by an image projected onto a screen of the performer posing, holding a prop or, in Martha Sanders’s case, a cat. This time director Dorothy Milne tries to mix things up a bit during her own piece by giving something of a slide show. But her extended use of images doesn’t add much, nor is it especially consistent. At least this time they’ve gotten rid of the cute slide presentation of the titles, each performer holding up a sign.

The show is well acted and well directed. The sensibilities continue to be white, heterosexual, and middle-class, but the voices are so authentic that they transcend these demographics. The subjects in Sweat Dreams, while still approached from a distinctly female perspective, are broader than those in the first show, darker and more mature. Milne proves surprisingly vulnerable in her piece. Hilarious in many ways–as before, her face tells much of the story–Milne gives us her take on sex and intimacy, celibacy and masturbation, and the emotional and social acrobatics necessary to navigate her life. But instead of ending with the expected anthem to liberation–and without backing down on anything–she illuminates human need.

Three actors who didn’t especially impress me last time turn in solid performances: Jenifer Tyler, whose piece in I’m Sweating Under My Breasts was just plain grating, delivers a story of astonishing beauty about her relationship with her father. Jane Blass, whose previous piece made her seem a bit of a cool cat, is terrific at portraying postbreakup neuroses. And Sanders, whose piece in the first show made an edgy, dangerous promise it couldn’t deliver on, comes through with a tale that balances desperation, ego, loneliness, and forgiveness. It’s sad and funny; Sanders keeps in check both the pathos and the broad strokes.

If Sweat Dreams has disappointments, they’re the pieces by Cindy Hanson and Carole Nolan-Long, both of whom were standouts in the first show. The problems are in the writing–both monologues seem to wander. Nolan-Long’s starts out somewhat promisingly, and its complex ideas about otherworldly phenomena seem worth pursuing, but it falls apart in the middle and, even with her formidable acting abilities, she can’t pull it off. Hanson’s piece is tricky–the topic is grim and painful, and trying to wrest some humor from it may be beyond her powers at this point. The night I saw the show, she seemed uncomfortable and unfocused. But although Nolan-Long and Hanson both failed, their efforts represented admirable artistic and personal leaps.

For whatever reasons, the show’s producers call this, just as they did the previous show, performance. But by my reckoning it’s pretty theatrical: the vision is primarily the director’s, the performers speak their lines in an actorly way, and the writing is quite literary. If you like your performance along the lines of Joan Dickinson or Tim Miller, skip this one. But if you think Reno and Ted Bales are performance, you should love it.

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