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A CurtainUp DC Review
Sleeping Arrangements

Sometimes the thing you fear doesn't happen. Something else does.— Uncle Len

Paul Morella and Tessa Klein
Paul Morella and Tessa Klein (Photo: Stan Barouh )
Theater J is hosting a world premiere, slice of life story that is touching, funny and sure to please general audiences around the DC area. Written by local author and playwright, Laura Shaine Cunningham, Sleeping Arrangements is based upon the author's memoirs and is the story about one young girl's eccentric family. It's a broad comedy, still very much a work in progress, but worth seeing for its touching overtones of wacky familial love and self-acceptance.

Director Delia Taylor has taken a forceful hand to Ms. Cunningham's play, going for high-energy and constant laughs. The play is really a series of vignettes without an actual plot arc which come at the audience swiftly and with hardly a moment's pause. Scenery is moved, actors appear, and the laughs roll across the audience as memory switches are hit and people identify with the situation or the character on stage.

Kathleen Runey's set is spare and interchangeable, using Colin K. Bills lighting to maximum effect. Thus the scenes shift between apartments, childhood playgrounds, a hospital and a tortuous summer camp. Mark Anduss' sound design takes us back to the fifties with nostalgic tunes and Melanie Clark's late fifties costumes. Michael Skinner's projections are especially effective at the end of the performance during a sentimental moment of mother/daughter affection.

Tessa Klein is self-composed as Lily the eight-year old girl whose life is about to become unsettled and go topsy-turvy when tragedy befalls her family. Becky Peters provides a bohemian, free-spirited maternal aura that stays on stage even as her character Rosie exits it. Paul Morella (Uncle Len) and David Elias (Uncle Gabe) create memorable characters — one a dashing secret agent, the other a nebbish fellow who melds African American spirituals with Jewish folk songs. They're different as night and day, yet somehow oddly similar, as many brothers seem to be.

Susan Moses is the nosy neighbor, Mrs. Hassan, who can't be pleased by anything or anyone. Halo Wines' grandma "Etka from Minsk" (her preferred title) is over the top as first a foil to everyone in the apartment building and then as a much loved, vulnerable part of the family.

Lindsay Haynes and Tiffany Fillmore are Lily's best friends. Ms. Haynes the precocious ten year old Susan and Ms. Fillmore the seven year old ragamuffin Diana. While one is explaining her parents "forbidden time" (meaning no sex) the other is trying to figure out how to make a fast buck with as little effort as possible. Cam Magee and Tom Howley round out the cast in a variety of roles, most notably as stressed camp directors who are running their establishment just this side of the law.

Compared to MetroStage's recent production of Morris Panych's Girl In A Goldfish Bowl , Ms. Cunningham's Sleeping Arrangements looks remarkably spare of emotional connection to its subject matter. While both plays are about young girls who lose mothers and have their families ripped apart, Mr. Panych's play balances the eccentric characters with the emotional journey of his main character. Ms. Cunningham's play doesn't feel like she is taking her audience on a journey so much as simply presenting wacky vignettes to make us see how loveable eccentrics really are.

For a play about the special connection between a mother and daughter, Rosie the mother is strangely absent from the stage. Her character has hardly been given ten minutes for us to get to know her, care about her and see her as something more than "the young mother who dies." As for Lily's uncles, we don't need to be convinced that Lily is being raised by an acceptable family of misfits. We root for popcorn serving Uncle Len and singing Uncle Gabe, but we do want to know just why Lily loves these two nutty guys so much and want to sense some real emotional connection between them instead of simply being told that "alternative families deserve to be allowed to flourish."

Though Sleeping Arrangements needs more focus, more depth and more hard work to arrive at its fullest potential, it's definitely entertaining and will pull your heart strings and make you laugh, but at intermission you're thinking "This is funny, but it's not going anywhere."

For those who want to read the memoir, the play is based upon, Theater J is selling autographed copies at each of the performances. Also, for those who want to discuss the play and its themes, roundtable discussions are planned throughout the run of the show. These talks are free to attend with a ticket from the performance.

Editor's Note: I remember Cunningham's book with great fondness. I had everything the play seems to be lacking, so perhaps, with the additional work Rich feels it needs, it will be as good on stage as I remember it to be on the page.

Sleeping Arrangements
by Laura Shaine Cunningham
Directed by Delia Taylor
with Tessa Klein, Halo Wines, Paul Morella, David Elias, Tiffany Fillmore, Lindsay Haynes, Tom Howley, Cam Magee, Susan Moses, Becky Peters
Set Design: Kathleen Runey
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Mark Anduss
Costume Design: Melanie Clark
Properties Design: Michelle Elwyn
Projections Design: Michael Skinner
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
A production of Theater J
Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington DC
Telephone: Tickets 1-800-494-8497, Info 202-777-3214
WED - THUR @7:30, SAT @8, SUN @3 and 7:30; $15-$45
Opening 01/09/07, closing 02/18/07
Reviewed by Rich See based on 01/14/07 performance
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