Anyone ready for a comedy about terrorism? How about a comic thriller, in which a woman has an affair with her son’s tutor, then begins to suspect that he may just be a terrorist, bent on destruction of all she holds dear? That’s the story of “The Sleeper,” receiving its West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, and it’s a bit of a strange animal: part comedy, part thriller, part analysis of the national psyche in the age of sleeper cells, all told with the tone of a dinner theater mystery play.
While playwright Catherine Butterfield demonstrates some capable craftsmanship, the play never manages to shed the gnawing sense that it’s exploiting the emotional aftereffects of 9/11 for the sake of bourgeois entertainment.
To be fair, Butterfield wants to poke some substantive fun at our national paranoia. In the opening moments of “The Sleeper,” all-American housewife and mother Gretchen (Amy Tribbey) calls around to other moms in her son’s school, making sure they know that today is yet another “TAD,” which stands for “terrorist alert day,” and thus reminding them to obey the proper rules when picking up their kids. For Gretchen, this is serious stuff, and she’s just trying to do her duty in these months following 9/11 (the play is set in 2002).
Gretchen has other things to worry about, too, including her disgustingly self-involved husband Bill (Tim Meinelschmidt) and her alcoholic sister Vivien (Clarinda Ross). These two characters, who despise each other, provide sporadic, and portentous, narration of the story, which makes clear that something big is going to happen.
Gretchen begins an affair with the handsome, so-very-nice Matthew (Ray DeJohn), whom she meets in the hallway after a meeting about anthrax. But her guilt over the affair only seems to enhance her paranoia, and she begins to suspect that Matthew might be part of a terrorist cell. After all, he’s tutoring dark-skinned men in Arabic, might just be disguising his identity and has an apparent dislike toward American foreign policy.
Butterfield and director Andrew Barnicle balance the “is he or isn’t he?” question with a degree of dramatic dexterity, and the plot twist at the end does work, at least superficially.
But Butterfield can’t quite find the right tone for all this. Despite a fine performance from Tribbey — whose stylized innocence draws us into Gretchen’s fears without making us judge her for her prejudices — there’s something just too self-consciously gimmicky about “The Sleeper.” It makes observations about our national paranoia and then treats the issue as a red herring for a cardboard plot. It diagnoses some racism at the core of our fears — the Arab men are referred to as “Third Worldy” — but plays it for a laugh.
The effects of 9/11 do belong onstage, and there’s no reason we can’t laugh at some of them. But “The Sleeper” just feels tacky.