Unfulfilled Dreams of Humanity

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Despite the upscale milieu, Adam Rapp's new play is just as sordid as ever

In his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner made an ominous assessment of new writing: "Our tragedy today is a general and universal fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it?Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about."

It is, of course, impossible that Faulkner jumped into a time machine to see Adam Rapp's Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling in 2011 before making that speech, but he may as well have, for Rapp's work fits the bill as a fearful and small-minded work of writing that misses the point of the human condition entirely.

The play opens in the dining room of an opulent Connecticut home (the cleanly elegant set is by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata), but what promises to be a fast-paced society comedy descends, within minutes, to awkward one-liners about Jesus and poor people.

The play guides us through an absurd dinner party (we've never seen an absurd dinner party featuring the wealthy, have we?), in which the hostess is drunk before the table is set. An African-American maid is patronized in Jim-Crow-Law fashion; dopes that still happen in upscale Connecticut homes. Wild goose is served. There are seductions. There is sex on the dining room table. There is poison in a goblet. There is suicide. And, of course, there is a lion in the basement. Other than that, not much happens.

The actors all put in noble efforts. New York favorites Cotter Smith and Reed Birney turn in likeable performances, and are both convincing Yaleys (which is about as much nuance of character as they're permitted). Christine Lahti steals the show with her wicked, husband-poisoning turn as the lady of the house. It's difficult to know whether Katherine Waterson and Shane McRae as the incompetent adult-children were directed to be quite so changeless, but the text does seem to call for static insipidity, and they perform that nicely. In any case, Neil Pepe directs with an eye firmly on the cheap laugh, but given the material, one can't blame him for finding something to keep his eye on. In a play in which no one transforms, grows, or learns anything, character development is out the window.

When the 80 minutes of soulless contrivance winds to an end, and a giant, maimed lioness in chains appears onstage (apparently an emblem for the brutality and brokenness of the rich), one is tempted to weep for Christine Lahti, until then playing a character who had no feelings, placing her hands inside the wounds of the dying lioness, trying to weep over an emblem that had been permitted no meaning. To watch such talented actors wasted on such soulless material, trying to make meaning out of it, becomes a play unto itself. A tragic one.

The real shame in all of this is that absurdity, when applied appropriately, holds the key to opening and implicating an audience. The absurd in theater creates a primal and universal symbol system through which meaning can be accessed democratically. But absurdity sans meaning is just?boring.

The day Rapp writes a play about the human heart in conflict with itself (rather than the human ego masturbating with itself) is the day we'll have the next great American play. He's a playwright of great talent and potential, and needs only to find his heart. Let's look forward to that, shall we?

Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling

Through Oct. 30, Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rd and 4th Aves.), www.atlantictheater.org; $65.

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