Act Now Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

Here we have two productions of the same script, John Patrick Shanley’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow. Both are non-Equity; both have been mounted, I assume, under typical off-off-Loop conditions–low salaries, inadequate rehearsal time, inadequate production budgets. Yet the contrast between these two couldn’t be more stark. One production is riveting, one is tedious; one illuminates Shanley’s strengths, the other his weaknesses.

Ironically it’s the smaller, poorer company–Act Now Productions, performing in Cafe Voltaire’s dark, dank basement–that transforms Shanley’s clever play into pure poetry. Meanwhile Lightning in a Jar, performing in the comparatively larger Shattered Globe Theatre, turns wordplay into word salad and 90 minutes into an eternity.

I suspect that a lot of the differences can be explained by casting, and by the fact that Act Now director Oliver Oertel never forgot that performance is everything. It would be hard to imagine three better actors for this play’s trio of working-class New Yorkers–a burnt-out painter, his daughter, and her sometime lover–than Patrick Carton, Seana Kofoed, and Todd Stashwick.

As Donna’s dad, Carton seems the least expressive of the three, though this is perfectly in character for a man who’s retreated into an alcohol-numbed seclusion following his wife’s death. By contrast, Kofoed kicks ass as the pissed-off pistol Donna. Watching her snarl, pace, and purr–she spits out with unnerving ease such trademark Shanley lines as “That amazes me. You amaze me. I am amazed” and “You talk about yourself like you were an isotope or something. Unstable to the nines”–you really believe she still aches body and soul for her fool of a boyfriend, though she’s murderously angry with him for “boffing” her 16-year-old sister.

Of course anyone with a strong set of lungs and mastery of the language could shout her way through this role. What makes Kofoed’s performance especially fine is the way she remains 100 percent in the play even when her character is doing nothing but listening.

Stashwick, as Donna’s confused, emotionally wounded boyfriend, has only partly mastered this skill. Most of the time he appears to be listening, but rarely with the intensity that Kofoed does. He proves much better at spitting out his lines. And like Kofoed, Stashwick is adept at negotiating Shanley’s odd, poetic version of working-class New Yorkese: “I guess this is something I have to exist through,” and “There was lightning screwed in a jar here.”

Oertel has wisely chosen (or has been forced by circumstance) to keep props and major set changes to a minimum. As a result this production unfolds with a grace and elegance that make even Tommy’s overwritten, self-consciously arty monologues shine. Cafe Voltaire’s rather grubby basement works perfectly, both as Tommy’s “shit-hole” of an apartment and as a metaphor for all three characters’ inward journeys.


Lightning in a Jar

at the Shattered Globe Theatre

Lightning in a Jar’s more complicated set at the Shattered Globe–in particular a large, heavy, awkward divider–proved one of the factors that undid their version of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow. Every time the divider had to be moved into place to signify the back wall of Tommy’s god-awful apartment, the action stopped dead.

By itself this wouldn’t have been enough to mortally wound the production. Coupled, however, with Alan Polonsky’s weak direction, the long, elaborate scene changes really hurt. This production has a jerky, spasmodic rhythm: some scenes, like the one between Donna and her father, kind of work, while others, such as Tommy’s long, confusing monologue at the end of scene one, fail miserably.

Nevertheless, what finally does in this version is Polonsky’s indifferent cast, none of whom seem comfortable speaking the sort of dialogue that made Moonstruck (for which Shanley won an Oscar in 1988) such a feast for the ears as well as the eyes.

In particular Anastasia Basil seems miscast as Donna. She neither looks, acts, nor sounds right for the part. She tries and tries and tries, twitching and grimacing until all her lines sound like ersatz New Yorkese: “Come mere wit me.” Unfortunately, no one seems to have bothered to ask “For what is an actress profited, if she shall gain an accent and lose her own soul?” For lose it she does, with the result that almost nothing she does seems real. Even when delivering lines like “If you don’t get off Mona, I’m going to kill you” she doesn’t look or sound very angry. And that’s a problem.

It doesn’t help that Joe Forbrich, who has turned in perfectly fine performances in Shattered Globe productions, is only a little bit more believable as Tommy than Basil is as Donna. Just as Basil doesn’t seem connected to her anger, Forbrich doesn’t seem connected to his sexuality. In fact, when he delivers the line “There was lightning screwed in a jar here” sex is the last thing you think of. For a flickering moment or two I wondered if he was referring to some time when he and Donna had collected lightning bugs.

Only Ike Eichling, as Donna’s father, turns in a performance adequate to the play’s dramatic needs. When the father reveals that his dead wife was the love of his life, you really feel his anguish and loneliness–he seems the most emotionally alive character in the play. But that in itself is a problem, since Donna’s dad is supposed to be nearly numb from years of repressed grief and heavy drinking–at least at the beginning. And Eichling, unlike the rest of the cast, is never numb.