Towards the latter half of Christina Quintana’s Enter Your Sleep, moving into its final week over at the Fortress of Lushington on Burgundy Street, a childlike, diminutive Becca Chapman, as the play’s principal character Zico, becomes lost in a dark wood.
That treacherous forest is actually the landscape of a dream from which she is unwilling to wake up.
Having scattered the stones that would’ve led her back to safety, Chapman’s Zico suddenly finds herself face to face with a spinster hermit who adamantly denies having any taste for human flesh.
The elderly woman, played by Chapman’s physical opposite but energetic equal Matt Standley, has a much darker secret than ones involving gingerbread houses. It falls to this elderly soothsayer to inform Zico that she is a woman for whom a life with a man is not an option.
And this is despite the fact that her soul mate is a man.
Under Joseph Funari’s clear-if-on-the-nose direction, the scene is simple, abruptly humorous, tonally out of place, expertly acted, runs a bit long and ultimately breaks the heart.
In short, it is everything right and wrong about Quintana’s new play.
Taking place in the REM stages of Zico’s dream, The Elm Theatre’s production of Enter Your Sleep is a two-person tragic-comedy that showcases the impressive talents of its actors Chapman and Standley. Using memories as its springboard, it follows grammar school friends Zico and PK who wrestle with trying to figure out not only how they fit into the world but each other as well.
I am not familiar with Ms. Quintana’s work, but it shows great promise in its highly imaginative exploration of two relatively ordinary Midwest kids whose relationship defies easy category.
Rather than having the play be a series of realistic encounters over the course of a brief lifetime of friendship, Quintana has instead chosen to explore the characters’ emotional difficulties with a dash of August Strindberg, a taste of Tennessee Williams and some wisdom from Billy Crystal.
Aided by Alex Smith’s sharp lighting design and Swamp Deville’s clever series of boxes for a set, Quintana pens a series of vignettes exploring tropes of childhood with a reliance on make believe, love of storytelling and need for naps. Those vignettes serve as a structure to track Zico’s gradual sexual awakening and PK’s long drift away from a woman whose love he never fully understands.
Where Quintana’s play becomes fitful is in its inability to decide whether the story belongs either to both characters or merely Zico.
As the work stands now, it is Zico’s dream, Zico’s awakening, and ultimately her story. However, just enough time is spent following the arc of PK to become disappointed when his tale begins to fade in level of importance.
It seems Quintana can either increase the strength of PK’s presence, making the evening a full one requiring an intermission, or reduce the dramatic burden of her male figure, reducing the play to a character study of the fully realized Zico.
But regardless of Enter Your Sleep’s structural tossing and turning, the performances themselves are first rate. Chapman and Standley are a natural odd couple and should develop something together along the lines of Elaine May and the late Mike Nichols.
Tiny, energetic and bursting out her frame, Chapman pivots from frightened child to condescending teacher to smug talk show host. And Standley beams expansive warmth at one moment by channeling the beloved Ferdinand the Bull and projecting glowering menace the next as a film noir heavy.
Most importantly, they listen to one another.
I am not always a fan of demonstrative, expressionistic acting with its reliance on funny voices and big faces. However, Standley and Chapman’s employment of those techniques works in Enter Your Sleep, because there isn’t a moment where they are not honed in on each other’s rhythms, pace or energy.
Don’t take my word for it; watch either actor when the other is speaking.
And for all of this Funari is to be applauded. I was rather harsh on his directing for A Lie of The Mind. That show simply overwhelmed him, but given his strong work here, I can now see there are strengths he brings to a project.
The piece is visually balanced, the performances exist in the same show, and Funari keeps the action moving only slowing in those moments where reflection or tension is mandated.
But the great success of the acting and directing is in communicating the complexity of the relationship Quintanna is trying to project. Neither lovers nor simply best friends, Zico and PK are instead something elusively undefinable and rewardingly heart aching.
Which is also another way of describing this play at its best.