by: Laura Shaine Cunningham
Produced by: TheatreJ
Reviewed by: Debbie Minter Jackson
“It is safe to dream again,” says young Lily, while looking at the stars in the final line from Sleeping Arrangements, a world premiere playing at Theater J. This mild and quirky drama by Laura Shaine Cunningham is based on her memoir set in the 1950’s Bronx with stories as seen from the eyes of a precocious eight year old. Effectively staged by Delia Taylor, the script functions like a hidden camera and we see and hear what happens, the profound, the mundane, the funny and poignant moments in Lily’s young life. The set design by Kathleen Runey and especially the lighting by Colin Bills serve this play well in versatility, transforming the sparse stage into Bronx stoops, friendly neighborhood streets, a Catskills summer camp, wandering snowflakes, and even the “Dark Park,” filled with menacing, unsavory, yet colorful characters.
Cunningham’s script is trustworthy, sure and direct when depicting such tender moments as mother and daughter swinging arm in arm, laughing, sharing memories, even communicating telepathically—Lily can almost will her mother’s presence and attention by concentrating hard enough. It’s a warm and comfortable life that changes abruptly when Rosie dies and Lily learns to fend for herself. It’s here where the script shifts into a different style and seems to belong to another play altogether. Luckily, Taylor keeps a steady hand on the developments and the top notch actors maintain a sense of continuity and caring. In less skillful hands, the series of unfortunate events would feel more tedious than of concern. The lighthearted approach works more effectively in some spots than in others.
There are no hysterics when Uncle Gabe (David Elias) informs Lily that Mom died overnight, and in fact, he appears more affected by the loss of his sister than Lily in losing her Mom. His usual song and dance-filled approach to life darkens into a quiet and pained demeanor while Lily doesn’t seem to skip a beat. When Paul Morella enters as the mysterious Uncle Len, the family feels complete with caring and affection, and the household is actually more stable than when Lily and Rosie were vagabonds, thus, negating the concept in the play’s title. Still, the uncles are nicely rendered and they have colorful moments in taking on raising Lily who now relies on her fiends and neighbors more for comfort and security, especially neighbor Mrs. Hassan, in a consistent and well played delivery by Susan Moses.
The wonders of life as seen through Lily’s eyes allow one to turn on a dime in appreciating that things are not always what they seem. She never seems abandoned or alone. Twists in the second act describe the zany characters surrounding Lily, but nothing matches the relationships established in the first act. Halo Wines brings a funny and full-bodied delivery to the strange antics of Grandmother Etka, but again, no relationship is established, and so she seems more stuck and superficially staged in comic relief.
Transforming a play from a memoir is tricky. In a “coming of age” drama, you expect the young character to grow, develop, or take on some kind of new or evolved sensibility. Such growth doesn’t seem to occur in Sleeping Arrangements. Lily’s last line in observing the stars echoes the observations she made in the beginning, and while the wrapped-around theme promotes unity, the piece lacks a sense of drive or purpose, colorful characters notwithstanding.
Sleeping Arrangements is playing at Theater J, at 16th & Q through February 18th, Wed & Thursday 7:30 p.m., Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm and 7pm. Tickets: $25 – $45 available on the website. Theater J