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Twelve Dreams

His mentor, who is visiting from Europe, all too casually points out that "these dreams are not about animals -- they are about destruction" and, when pushed to explain further, says, "They seem to foretell the death of the dreamer." Not long after, the daughter falls mysteriously ill.

His mentor, who is visiting from Europe, all too casually points out that “these dreams are not about animals — they are about destruction” and, when pushed to explain further, says, “They seem to foretell the death of the dreamer.” Not long after, the daughter falls mysteriously ill.

Lapine’s inspiration for “Twelve Dreams” came from one of Carl Jung’s case studies. It is set in 1936, in a Northeast college town where Charles Hatrick (Harry Groener) is teaching and building his practice while coping with the death of his wife.

Emma (Mischa Barton, an extraordinary young actress who played a similar role in Tony Kushner’s “Slavs”) is well taken care of by an Irish nanny (Kathleen Chalfant), but there is clearly something missing from her life; it takes Charles most of the play to realize that what’s missing is him. His wife’s death has made the reticent shrink even more withdrawn.

Realizing his blunder, the mentor (Jan Rubes) attempts to back-pedal from his interpretation. But nothing can stop the dreams from unfolding; Lapine weaves them in and out of the ordinary events of Emma’s life — ballet lessons, visits with a girlfriend, an exchange with one of her father’s neurotic patients — until they have led inexorably to what has seemed from the outset a fated conclusion.

The new “Twelve Dreams” has a more Victorian sensibility than the old, particularly in its heightened regard for the wisdom of children. As Emma grows more gravely ill, Charles finally begins to reach out to her, to communicate with her on an emotional, rather than custodial, level.

Emma knows why. When he asks if there’s anything she wants to talk about, her heartbreaking response is to reassure him: “Daddy, don’t be sad,” she says, adding that while he may not believe in heaven, she does, and looks forward to seeing her mother there.

The play is surprisingly full of humor. Charles is struggling for a breakthrough with a wealthy patient (played with a perfect mix of seductiveness and self-absorption by Donna Murphy) who pretends to be surprised at the notion that he has other patients; a subplot has Charles’ awkward protege (Matthew Ross) falling in love with Emma’s ballet teacher (Meg Howrey). But all of this is refracted through Emma’s life, which is fast being consumed by those dreams, in which she is swallowed up by animals or becomes sick only to have birds fly out of her and cover her up.

The dreams are impressionistically portrayed by the actors, the mood being set by Allan Shawn’s now lulling, now portentous underscoring and Peter Kaczoroswki’s mood-sensitive lighting. My only complaint about Adrianne Lobel’s bi-level revolving set is that it made me worry too much about actors falling out of Emma’s unguarded bedroom.

Lapine, who always brings a designer’s eye to his staging — note the square pools of light the actors often find themselves in — has wisely kept everything about the production understated.

The company, perfectly cast (Groener’s a revelation after all that time playing Bobby Childs in “Crazy for You”), underplays admirably. The result is itself a riveting dream which, for all its unsettling animal imagery, never loses its focus on the people at its core; it’s an enormously empathic evening.

Twelve Dreams

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York; 299 seats; $ 37.50 top)

Production: A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by James Lapine; sets, Adrianne Lobel; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music, Allen Shawn; dance staging, Lar Lubovitch. Artistic director, Andre Bishop; executive producer, Bernard Gersten. Opened June 8, 1995; reviewed June 7. Running time: 2 hours, 15 min. #Cast: Harry Groener (Charles Hatrick); Mischa Barton (Emma Hatrick), Kathleen Chalfant (Jenny), Jan Rubes (Professor), Matthew Ross (Sanford Putnam), Donna Murphy (Dorothy Trowbridge), Meg Howrey (Miss Banton), Brittany Boyd (Rindy). Like the disturbing visions that gave his play its title, "Twelve Dreams" has haunted James Lapine for a long time. This extraordinary play was first presented in 1978 as a work-in-progress by the Music-Theater Group (which would also produce similar-themed works by Martha Clarke), and Lapine staged a fuller version four years later at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Now Lapine, the gifted director and writer who would go on to major collaborations with Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, has returned again to the material, producing a richer, smarter and immensely moving meditation on the significance of dreams and, more important this time around, on the unique bond between father and child. At Christmastime, a motherless child of 10 gives her psychiatrist father a book of drawings she has made of 12 strange dreams, teeming with images of animals and violence.

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