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Broken Sleep: Three Plays

I've seen enough of Donald Margulies' work to consider any play bearing his by-line something of a must see . When the credits also include "music by Michael John LaChiusa" my antenna goes way up. As Margulies is a playwright who always leaves you thinking about the ideas he explores and caring about his characters, theater works featuring La Chiusa's music leave a lasting impression.

Having seen and reviewed Margulies' most recent and still running Collected Stories, (at New York's Manhattan Theater Club--see our review) it's natural to compare the two, especially since both are directed by the talented Lisa Peterson. Since the plays represent the playwright's most recent work and both have titles suggesting an anthology, they also invite a comparative examination of Margulies' method for exploring his themes. While Collected Stories sounds like an anthology it is in fact a play in six scenes revolving around a single relationship. Broken Sleep on the other hand, is an amalgam of three separate plays about the cause and effect of interrupted sleep on a variety of characters.

While I admired both plays, the conventional approach of one play/one theme ultimately makes Collected Stories the more successfully realized work. Still, I admire the playwright's courage in attempting to coalesce three stylistically distinct plays with the theme of their combined title, Broken Sleep. Like all risk-taking endeavors, the strengths of Broken Sleep are undermined by its weaknesses. Having arrived with great expectations, I came away disappointed, not because Broken Sleep is a disaster--it is well-paced and holds audience interest throughout-- but because it isn't as good as it could have been. The same holds true for Michael John LaChiusa's musical contribution which was spectacular in Hello Again and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but spotty in another theme-connected trilogy, First Lady Suite.

Without giving anything away, here's a nutshell summary of the plot and style of the three plays that make up Broken Sleep.

"Nocturne" deals with a little boy's (Bryan Hughes) nighttime dreams. The style is almost pure fantasy, complete with knife-wielding monsters, masked rescuer-kidnappers and parents (Tony Campisi and Divina Cook) who shift abruptly and frighteningly from grief to a surreal tango. This is the shortest and most true to its intent play of the trio. I particularly liked the bubble which serves as a charming minor player.

"Broken Sleep" is a musical (well, sort of) which has the entire ensemble portray six nameless characters reacting to their interrupted sleep. The director effectively choreographs things so that as one character is in the spotlight, the rest of the ensemble is posed in various stances of discomfort. Their efforts to sleep standing up and with pillows propped against the wall is visually quite effective. Tony Campisi contributes a humorous monologue in the role of a man channel surfing his way through his after-midnight sleeplessness. Adriane Lenox and Paula Newsome deliver several incisive numbers. Being the only two members of the cast equipped with singing voices to do justice to Chiusa's pulsing rhythms, the play's impact as a musical is not particularly effective. The insistently loud piano does little to help the non-singing actors overcome their voice limitations. For me, this was the most disappointing because it had the potential of being something special but somehow missed too many beats both as a free-standing play and as the binding thread in the overall fabric of the trilogy.

"July 7, 1994" begins with a young mother (Kate Burton) wakened from a nightmare by her husband (Cotter Smith) and then follows her through her day's encounters as a physician at a clinic to her return home at the end of a day during which her plate is heaped with large portions of human misery. This is the meatiest play in the trio and because its style is realistic it is also the most accessible. In fact, I heard someone in the audience at the press opening I attended ask her friend "Why didn't they just start with the last play?" I can't say that I agree with that woman. It was meatiest in the sense that it contained a beginning-middle-end and a name-identified cast of well defined characters. It also contains some finely acted scenes--notably, Tony Campisi as a bi-polar man who explodes into the ultimate in inappropriate behavior; Paula Newsome as a deceptively tough black woman and the interaction between Kate Burton and Adriane Lenox as a dying patient.

The above praises aside, however, "July 7, 1994" was also the most predictable and stereotypical. These lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation never fully grip our heartstrings so that even in this intimate theater we feel too distanced to experience them as people rather than characters. That missing sense of emotional engagement applies even to the star player of the ensemble, Kate Burton, who, while likeable and convincing, does not project that certain inner spark that is needed for a truly mesmerizing performance. To add one positive note to this criticism, a word about the frequent pop culture allusions. At first these seem to underscore the predictability factor, but you quickly come to realize that Margulies, who's not given to cliches, uses the O.J. Simpson trial and the Jerry Seinfeld show characters quite deliberately to clarify the social environment that spawns the situations that wake us up in the middle of the night.

The technical credits for Broken Sleep: Three Plays are ably handled by Kathleen Widomski (sets), c Linda Cho (costumes), Jeffrey Nellis (lighting) and Christopher Todd (sound). All three plays are performed without intermission, for a total running time of 90 minutes. ©right July 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

By Donald Margulies
Directed by Lisa Peterson
With music by Michael John LaChiusa
Starring Kate Burton, Tony Campisi, Divina Cook, Adriane Lenox, Paula Newsome and Cotter Smith
A world premiere production
Other Stage/Williamstown Theatre Festival
Williamstown, MA

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