Subtitled "A Heterosexual Homily," John Patrick Shanley's The Dreamer Examines His Pillow debuted in New York some 20 years before his significantly better-known (and better-written) polemic seared his name into theater history. Doubt, an impassioned examination of child molestation allegations against a Bronx priest, took home a handful of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. As in Doubt, Shanley uses a small cast in this earlier work to explore psychological problems. But the resulting personality and ideological clashes, at least as rendered in this tedious production, lack the intensity and urgency of his later effort. As he pushes a cast of three actors through three interconnected scenes, Shanley charts a doleful path in probing the possibilities and trappings of love, sex, and relationships. Mired in his slovenly apartment, the reclusive, brooding, and slightly depressive Tommy (Joe Petcka) alternately talks to himself and to his refrigerator (a somewhat animate object itself, later on) until he is visited by his livid ex-girlfriend Donna (Eleni Tzimas). She immediately begins to berate him—for not taking responsibility for his actions, for not taking ownership of his life, and (certainly not least of which) for sleeping with her younger sister.
Tommy responds by offering up a flimsy remnant of their romance; he initiates physical contact, which she deflects. "Know thyself; then maybe we can talk," she charges, before racing off to seek assistance from her father.
"It's my daughter, come to make me a parent," Dad (David Ditto Tawil) wryly announces upon her return. A moody artist who retired from painting after his wife's death, he speaks candidly with his somewhat estranged daughter about sex and relationships. Donna's fear? That Tommy is a younger incarnation of her father. Desperate to thwart destiny, Donna demands that her father visit Tommy and physically beat him up if he recognizes his own vices in the younger man. She wants to know if he's "curable."
At this point, the implausibility of these events seems largely incurable. But then the characters experience puzzling epiphanies that launch them into even more meandering dialogue. Stagnantly directed by Rusty Owen, the actors frequently square off at one another from opposite sides of the stage, barking across the set with little deviation or motivation.
Moreover, each seems to have uncovered one dominant emotion and fastened onto it. As the caustic Donna, Eleni Tzimas displays a brittle anger with every line. Even the importunate "I miss you; I'm lonely for you" is relatively passionless, lacking shape and commitment. Joe Petcka can't break free of Tommy's despondency, and his overwrought egotism completely usurps his latent charm. Most important, in this production there is no clear indication that Donna and Tommy are still in love with each other, nor is there much reason to think that they should be.
As Donna's itinerant father, David Ditto Tawil turns in the most nuanced performance, but overplays the character's often hazy eccentricity.
Packed with crude language and colorful sexual metaphors, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is a fascinating, if frustrating, backward glance at a developing playwright's early work. In his 1986 New York Times review, Mel Gussow called the play "an extended, incommunicative conversation in the guise of theater." Unfortunately, this production does little to disrupt that definition, but we can be thankful that, after incessantly batting around words like "love" and "relationship," Shanley's dramatic ramblings eventually led him to write a work of greater theatricality and significance.