Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Have you ever noticed that the people that devote their time and energy to humanitarian efforts are often incredibly uncomfortable dealing with humans? Perhaps there's something in their chemical makeup that makes it easier to deal with humanity in a broad and theoretical way, rather than deal with humans as individuals.

Bobby Guffin, one of the protagonists in David Ian Lee's ambitious and compelling play, Sleeper, is such a character. He wants to make the world a better place. He may even want to save the world. He also wants to avoid interacting with his wife at all costs.

The first half of Sleeper takes place in various cities and towns in March of 2003, just before the U.S.'s war on Iraq. The aforementioned Bobby works as a freelance consultant for hospitals, trying to organize and improve their admittance and insurance policies. He's disillusioned with his work. After a chance encounter with an old college buddy, he decides to go to Afghanistan to help build roads. His wife, Teri, spends most of her time trying - and failing - to connect with her sick father and waiting in vain for Bobby to give her the time of day.

Meanwhile, Rachel Anderson, an ambitious right-wing talk show host, is finding her career bashing the left and praising President Bush skyrocket.

In Afghanistan, Bobby is kidnapped and held hostage, which sets the stage for the second half. Teri is now a left-wing activist, although it's unclear as to how much she really cares about her husband versus how much she cares about using his abduction to fuel her own causes. Rachel's reporting of Bobby's abduction has boosted her career even more, making her one of the most prominent right-wing television pundits along with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

The bulk of the second act flips back and forth between Bobby being held hostage in an undisclosed location in April of 2003 and a live on-air interview with Teri on Rachel's hit TV show in 2008.

One of the things that saves Sleeper from being merely a position paper against the Bush administration's foreign policy is that it is populated with well-rounded, believable characters, not archetypes or mouthpieces. As hateful and infuriating as Rachel is, she's not a two-dimensional monster, but a somewhat tragic and yes, even sympathetic figure blinded and consumed by zeal and ambition. Bobby and Teri are not purely idealists, but are haunted by personal traumas: they have problems concerning marriage, intimacy, and past pains, not just problems of political ideology. Even Bobby's captors are portrayed as having conflicting feelings about what they're doing.

Also, there are some intense, visceral moments in the show that make Sleeper an engaging theatrical experience as opposed to soapbox grandstanding.

The acting is stellar across the board, with perhaps Kristen Vaughan nearly stealing the show as Rachel. In addition to writing the script, Lee is quite effective as Bobby. Karen Sternberg is wholly believable as Teri.

Micah Chartrand, David Dartley, Jason Griffith, Emily Hagburg, L.Jay Meyer, and Craig Lee Thomas round out the rest of ensemble cast nicely.

There's a definite tonal and stylistic shift between the two acts, due in part to Lee's script and in part to Nat Cassidy's direction. For example, there's a stylistic choice made in Act One (where the cast members remain on stage rather than exit after their scenes) that is eliminated in Act Two, save for a brief return towards the end. I'm inclined to say that it works, or at least, that it didn't bother me, even though some audience members may find it jarring.

Sleeper deals well with the political as well as the personal, and astutely explores why and how there's often a divide between the two. It is a very fine production of a very fine play.

Sleeper plays for three more nights (August 3,4 & 5) at manhattantheatresource (177 MacDougal Street). For tickets go here.

Fearing intimacy,

James "Political Atheist" Comtois

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