"And by a sleep to say we end / the heartache and the thousand natural shocks..." (Hamlet). You would go to sleep too. You would sleep if your husband yelled at you constantly in unintelligible corporate-speak. Or if your stepdaughter said she would cut off your hand in order to gain entrance to public housing. Or if it snowed salt. What would you do then? You would sleep.
With What Then, Rinne Groff has written a truly innovative dramatic farce about marriage, a reflection on dreams, and a frightening premonition of environmental degradation. As the play begins, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, Diane, a middle-aged accountant, quits her job to spend more time at home, asleep on her kitchen countertop. Diane is no narcoleptic; she is instead what her husband Tom calls a "champion" sleeper. In her dreams, she becomes increasingly involved in a somnambulist fantasy about being an architect and creating the perfect housing project, replete with amphitheater, community garden, and velvet people mover.
Tom, the eternal realist, chastises Diane for quitting work and spending all her time sleeping to create her illusionary edifices. Diane reminds him that her new "profession" is just as elusive as his, since the vaguely ominous, environmentally devastating corporation that he works for is more concerned with creating acronyms and circular professional jargon ("You saw the Public Forum for the Public?") than creating actual products.
Meanwhile, Tom's daughter (and Diane's stepdaughter) Sallie, a drug-addled opportunist who would attempt murder for the sake of an apartment, convinces her boyfriend, Bahktiyor (or, to his friends, Tom—let's call him Tom 2), to steal Diane's blood as she sleeps. Sallie plans to use the fluid to pass a blood test so she can be eligible for government-subsidized housing.
While attempting to abscond with the hustled hemoglobin, Tom 2 inadvertently wakes Diane. She shares with him the idea for her marvelous structure. Entranced by her vision, Tom 2 quickly falls in love with her. He abandons Sallie and her scheme and soon becomes Diane's co-conspirator, traveling with her through consciousness and unconsciousness, becoming an architect of dreams and helping her build, as it were, castles in the air.
It's no surprise that they turn to sleep, given the nightmarish scenario that Groff has conjured. Dust storms, government-issued gas masks to be worn in the living room, massive global warming, and dried lakes are just a few of the treats awaiting us in this post-apocalyptic setting.
Two musical numbers add an implausible yet humorous note, though admittedly the first one drags a bit. The first whimsical number, "What Then," comes just after Sallie, in a frenzied tantrum, attempts to kill Tom 2, her now ex-boyfriend. The song is a catchy little ditty that, given its place after such a serious scene, shows the profound range of emotions in the play. The second number, "Sorry for Myself," makes great use of a Fisher-Price children's microphone, highlighting the playfulness that's evident throughout the production.
Director Hal Brooks, after recently ending his Pulitzer-nominated stint as director of Thom Pain, brings a revelatory quality to the play, finishing scenes on twists instead of inevitabilities, imbuing reality with a tinge of the fantastical, and schlocking up the farcical.
Long-time Clubbed Thumb member Meg MacCarthy plays Diane as if she were in a daze, which, given the part, a kind of sleepwalker among the awake, is exactly right. Husband Tom, played by Andrew Dolan, is good but somewhat stiff. Merritt Wever boldly attempts the difficult part of Sallie (who changes drastically throughout the play), though she often seems daunted by the challenge. Piter Marek, as the immigrant boyfriend-cum-dream-builder Bahktiyor, delivers a solid performance, at once playful and tragic, and displaying a great degree of depth.
If what dreams may come are anything as sweet as What Then, then keep dreaming.