To Sleep and Dream
"To Sleep and Dream" -- that's a daring title. It's basically an invitation for a snide critical remark about how the show will make you want to do both. We're not going to take that route, both because we're better than that and also because "To Sleep and Dream" turns out to be a good show that doesn't warrant a rhetorical mugging. Still, playwrights be warned about that kind of thing.
Theatre Rhinoceros, now the oldest continually producing queer theater company in the world, opens its 36th season with a show written by, directed by and starring artistic director John Fisher. Give the man credit: The only way he could work harder is if he manned the will-call counter.
"To Sleep and Dream" follows the travails of a clan of deceptively wealthy Reagan-era Marin types through a series of tension-filled cocktail parties (are there any other kind?), poised in front of the non-too subtly symbolic backdrop of a patio hillside that threatens to slide down and bury them all.
Fisher plays Paul, a frustrated, control-freak attorney locked out of his own family. Ben Calabrese is Jim, Paul's resentful, snotty, sort-of closeted sort-of not (there is some confusion on the point throughout) son, an aspiring actor. Raul Bencomo is... actually, barely in the show, so we're not sure why he even comes up. The wildcard in the family drama is Maryssa Wanlass as Diane, an ambitious younger attorney in Paul's firm who makes no secret of her extracurricular interest in him.
The Z Below stage affords the cast barely enough space to be called space, so it's clear from the outset that the show will be mostly a display of verbiage. Each performer has a particular mode: Fisher is abortive, wounded and frustrated, full of regret that's self-serving, but still sympathetic.
Calabrese is prickly, cerebral and aggressive, some point on a spectrum between Truman Capote and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, fueled by a darkly compelling sense of entitlement and resentment. Wanlass is deft, perceptive and shrewd, but also the most human of the bunch. And Bencomo is... underwritten, so we're not really sure why he's even in the show. And neither is he, it appears.
All of them seem to be the star in their own individual drama, as if the pages of many prospective plays had been mixed together in a kind of mass filing error, or maybe as if Fisher restarted the script many times but never threw anything out.
This is actually a good thing though: It isolates the cast from each other in exactly the way they need to make the conflict happen. No one communicates because they're too busy being the lead in their own story. And while it initially appears that Calabrese is going to rob the show blind, the rest of the cast eventually emerge as strong enough to hold their own against him.
Like all families, "To Sleep and Dream" is imperfect: The small number of characters make the action feel increasingly contrived, since when two characters are in the midst of a conversation we know exactly who will be interrupting them because, of course, there's no one else to do it.
And the critical shots at '80s excess, which of course are really shots at modern excess, with their still-timely asides about junk real estate and debt that masquerades as wealth, may be well-deserved but are still entirely too easy.
Some promising avenues are teased but left unexplored. For example, Wanlass and Calabrese display the kind of chemistry together that starts fires, so why are they never allowed to be alone onstage together? It's like taking one bite of chocolate cake and deciding you're done.
Still, "To Sleep and Dream" is smart, intimate character theater that feels real. It's a small show that probably too few people will see, but those who do will find its rewards worth the investment.
The show is good for: Ninety-nine percenters.
The show is not good for: Anyone who feels he's already had quite enough family dramas for one lifetime.
"To Sleep and Dream" runs through Oct. 6 at Z Below, 470 Florida St in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 866-811-4111 or visit Zspace.org