Among the many changes the events of 9/11 have brought about in American life is the new crop of words we’ve seen added to our daily lexicon, not the least of which is the term 9/11. Foreign words have become part of our vocabulary. Old words have been combined to create new phrases. Network news broadcasts have given us one media slogan after another. Who knew what a jihad was before the “axis of evil” launched its “Attack On America”? Even everyday words have acquired new meanings. Take the colors “blue,” “yellow,” “orange,” and “red,” no longer harmless hues but each one more frightening than the previous when modifying the word “alert.” Take too the word “sleeper,” once merely “a person or animal who is asleep” or perhaps a railroad sleeping car, now considerably more sinister in this post-9/11 world.

It’s this newer, scarier “sleeper” that playwright Catherine Butterfield has in mind in her 2004 comedy The Sleeper, now getting a sensational Los Angeles premiere by North Hollywood’s Theatre Tribe.

 If the idea of a post-9/11 comedy sounds more than a tad challenging to pull off, diehard L.A. theater buffs will recall that it was Theatre Tribe who staged a smashing Southern California Premiere of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events back in 2006—and that was a screwball comedy no less, which Wright had the chutzpah to set on 9/12/01.

Recent Tragic Events director (and Theatre Tribe Artistic Director) Stuart Rogers returns to work his magic on The Sleeper, a play which owes as much to Rogers’ cleverness and ingenuity as it does to Butterfield’s outrageously original script and a couldn’t-be-better ensemble cast headed by a mesmerizing Mandy Levin.

Levin (who also starred in Theatre Tribe’s powerful Cairo) is Gretchen, a Los Angeles stay-at-home mom circa 2002, who keeps herself busy phoning fellow elementary school moms to remind them about tomorrow’s TAD (“terrorist alert day”) and attending anthrax preparedness workshops which only serve to fill her with the kind of post-9/11 dread that’s become everyday for so many Americans.

 Things aren’t made any better by a husband (Pete Gardner as Bill) too busy worrying about his company’s impending IPO to pay much attention to Gretchen—in bed or elsewhere—or by an older, prettier, sexier sister (Corie Vickers as Vivien), who’s more concerned with maintaining her vampy appeal after 40 or with her latest audition in search of that illusive TV guest spot.

Then one day Gretchen meets Matthew (Benjamin Mathes), a handsome hunk of a younger man who just happens to be a math tutor, i.e. precisely what Gretchen has been looking for. The fact that a flirty Matthew seems actually to be attracted to Vivien’s younger, plainer sister is all Gretchen needs to hire him pretty much on the spot, and before you can say The Postman Always Rings Twice, the two are carrying on the way Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray did in Double Indemnity.

No, The Sleeper doesn’t turn all noir and have Gretchen and Matthew plotting to kill Bill. What playwright Butterfield has up her sleeve is considerably more 21st Century in tone, though don’t ask me to elaborate. Other than whatever hint the play’s title may conjure up in post-9/11 America, I plan to give away nothing else in this review.

That Butterfield can mine as many laughs as she does from our collective paranoia is a tribute to her gifts as a writer and to what the folks at Theatre Tribe bring to the table.

Director Rogers gives this production a surreal look and feel, keeping the entire cast onstage throughout, with supporting players seated upstage, alternately doing their own thing (writing, reading, etc.), interacting with each other, or observing the action. Furniture is oh-so cleverly brought onstage and off and props handed to the cast of characters as needs be by a pair of black-clad actors who also appear in cameo roles. I’m told that none of this stage business is in Butterfield’s script, yet it all ends up making perfect sense by the play’s oh-so surprising final twists.

 Cast members deliver one gem of a performance after another. Mathes’s leading man good looks, solid acting chops, and innate likeability serve Matthew to perfection, particularly as Butterfield’s script hints that there may be more to Matthew than meets the eye. Gardner’s Bill epitomizes every self-centered, business-obsessed husband women like Gretchen have been complaining about for generations. Vickers has just the right blend of glamour, sass, and narcissism, with a touch of Mean Girls thrown in, to make Vivien a winner. Heather Robinson is a hoot in a pair of very different roles, as a terrorizing anthrax expert and as an unconventional shrink. Ian Gould is very funny too as a toy store salesman with a surprising side business and Rob Mathes has a great scene as a terrorism expert who’s pretty terrifying himself. At the performance reviewed, Casey Gates and Tysen Fraker exhibited razor-sharp timing as scene-changers and prop-providers as well as appearing as students, a guard, and a man named Abbas.

Finally, in a role which keeps her onstage from the moment the audience enters till curtain call—and therefore gives her every right to her own individual bow at curtain calls—is the astonishing Levin, whose face (nondescript one minute, radiant the next, then horrified, then …) reveals as much about Gretchen as does her inspired delivery of Butterfield’s lines.

I didn’t quite get what scenic designer Jeff McLaughlin is meaning to say with the abstract set’s angular, oddly shaped wall moldings, but no matter. It looks fabulous. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting design is marvelously, subtly varied. Cricket S. Myers’ terrific sound design ups the dramatic tension underlying what is at heart a screwball kind of comedy. Unbilled costumes are all around terrific, particularly Gould’s quirky toy store employee garb.

The Sleeper is produced by Suzie Gardner. Cedric Williams is assistant director and Amanda Wyss assistant producer. Tina Germain is stage manager and Curtiss John technical director.

At a brisk eighty minutes, The Sleeper zips along lickety-split to an ending I didn’t see coming, even instants before…and a deliciously ironic one at that. In less than an hour and a half, Butterfield, Rogers, cast, and crew say more about what’s happening in our country today than a weekend of CNN or MSNBC reports, and do so far more entertainingly. This reviewer’s verdict: The Sleeper is most definitely A Keeper.

Theatre Tribe, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 7, 2012
Photos: Nancy Savan

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