[28 October 2011]
With the real life backdrop of the month-long Occupy Wall Street protests, “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” hits the dissonant chord of today’s public mood. In a PopMatters interview, Adam Rapp explains he wrote the play as an emotional response to and comment upon our country’s greed, and obsession with wealth, status and material assets. “Plays are like holding up a mirror”, said Rapp. “A dark, real American play is rare these days. There’s more of a sense of plays not wanting to ruffle feathers, to be an analgesic”.
This play is no sedative. But it is ground breaking as a contemporary reflection of today’s generation. Similar to the Zuccotti Park protests and Gretchen Morgenson’s book, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armegeddon, this play captures the mood of a historical point in time—the here and now. A drama and biting comedy of manners, it slams closed “The Preppy Handbook” and the glorification of the Reagan 1980s. All the actors, with spot-on performances, each in a different way, attack an outdated acceptance of a certain, cherished social order. Yet, the play is also filled with beautiful imagery and meaning. In uplifting moments, Rapp opens a new chapter for today’s youth in search of defining their own values.
Sandra (Christine Lahti) and her husband, Dr. Bertram Cabot (Reed Birney), with their daughter Cora (Katherine Waterston) host a dinner for friends. The guests include Dirk Von Sofenberg (Cotter Smith), his wife, Celeste (Betsy Aidem), and their son, James (Shane McRae), recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide. The middle-aged parents share histories, extending back to Yale college days, when Dirk rowed crew with Bert, the coxswain. Sandra aggressively dominates the evening, summoning the African American maid, Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), to serve food and drinks, speak French, and recite Shakespearean sonnets that Sandra has taught her. During the evening, Sandra sexually pursues Dirk, a murder plot brews and unhappiness propels the party to an irrevocable confrontation with truth.
Rapp possesses an offbeat honesty and lack of fear in showing human wretchedness to tell a story. In this production, misery comes draped in Chanel and Brooks Brothers clothing, served with a goose cooked in its own juices, complete with fine china, silverware, and a beautiful floral arrangement, in the center of an opulent Connecticut home.
“Culturally, there is this achievement ladder, where the middle class tries to become the upper class, and the upper class aspires to royalty. Connecticut represents the country as a whole” said Rapp.
Rapp sees an unnatural absurdity to the social climbing, and exploitation of people rooted in obsessive materialism. Sandra and Bert travel to exotic countries, and Sandra boasts a derisive sense of superiority and scorn. She regales her audience with tales of visiting other countries and intimidating the local people. She tells stories with an energetic relish. “I screamed, ‘Back off, indigenous peoples of Borneo! Back off with your small underdeveloped hands and swollen stomachs! Back the f-ck off!’”.
Similarly, Sandra’s treatment of Wilma resembles a colonial mentality of educating indigenous people. She brings out her maid from Red Hook, Brooklyn, so Wilma can demonstrate her command of finer points of an upper middle class culture.
Rapp shared real life experiences of equally absurd notions. While growing up in Joliet, Illinois, he observed a strange trend on the North Shore of Chicago. A rash of people started buying alpaca. Suddenly, these strange, shaggy, South American animals dotted the landscape, in the middle of a Midwestern suburb. Rapp also recalled a family in a wealthy Aspen community. The mother looked out the window and said, “We need something out there”. She then purchased horses, and at six o’clock, like magic, horses appeared in the backyard.
The play depicts the surreal aspect of moral corruption and greed on Wall Street. Bernie Madoff’s actual fraud is estimated to be in the $10 to $20 billion range, according to the Associated Press. The extreme absurdities of Rapp’s play pale in comparison to the homes and excesses of Madoff’s material indulgences. On the second anniversary of Madoff’s arrest, his eldest son hanged himself with a dog leash in his SoHo apartment.
Rapp describes Dirk as “burdened with a great deal of cultural and financial guilt”, a collaborator in a Madoff-like scheme.
Cora says to Dirk, “You’ve had quite the lucky streak lately, wouldn’t you agree? All that business with everyone losing their money. The king of the jungle got caught, somehow all the other animals got away, scott free”.
References to animals run throughout the play. Sandra behaves with the predatory nature of a barracuda—a fish the Cabots keep in an aquarium for show in their newly renovated basement. Cora and James talk of cows plotting a farm rebellion. Cora insists a she-lion lives in the basement behind a wall. Geese fly into the windows with a thud, breaking their necks—attacking the house of Sandra.
For Rapp, animals live in an innocent realm of their own. “We’ve manipulated our world and horrible things have resulted, including war, environmental and economic catastrophes” he said. “Kind of a karmic whiplash is happening. Geese are attacking the house, combating all the things that are wrong. Capitalism, commercialism, the need to collect, own assets, wealth and items is beginning to become absurd. Trying to live in this world of absurdity, the geese reflect the natural world”.
The sins of the parents weigh heavily upon their children. Both Cora and James have a convincingly painful and awkward presence, creating discomfort with an aching, silent loneliness. Dressed in black, Cora is a creepy girl, who holds the key to understanding much of the play. She asks James if he really thought he could fly or if he was just unhappy. Cora sees the unseen, has premonitions of the future and literally makes the hair on people’s arms stand on end. As an art project, Cora is creating a beard made from people’s arm hairs. She claims the person who wears the beard disappears but ends up in the dreams of people who provided the hairs.
James: So, if my arm hair was part of the beard and you wore it, I would dream about you?
James: That would be weird.
Cora: Maybe. But it could be fun.
James: What would we do?
Cora: I don’t know. I imagine whatever we’d care to.
Clearly, even when hopeful, this play is strange—to the point that it may alienate some audiences. However, Rapp said he wants it to provoke people to think, and to think about their children, and their relationship to money and wealth.
The dreams of flying represent aspirations, whatever they are. Rapp projects almost a greater beauty in dreams of falling, which represent falling from a certain place or position, but often to ultimately achieve a higher grace. And Cora says dreams of falling mean “falling in love”.
The play ends with Wilma singing:
I can see you.
I can see the animals too. …
I am falling.
Will you fall with me?
I am dreaming.
Will you dream with me?
We are dreaming
That we’re flying
Betsy Kim is a writer, living in New York City.
“Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” by Adam Rapp. Directed by Neil Pepe. The Atlantic Theater Company at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street through Oct 30. (212) 279-4200, www.ticketcentral.com.