John Patrick Shanley went on to great things (notably the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Doubt”) in the 20 years since he wrote “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow.” But to protect his rep, he should consign this infantile exercise in narcissism to a lead-lined coffin wreathed with garlands of garlic cloves. More accurately thought of as “The Artist Examines His Navel,” scribe’s youthful maunderings do offer some hints of the almost demonic forces that fuel his talent — but they whiz past the directorial tin ear of helmer Rusty Owen and the capabilities of his foundering cast.
Wordy speeches soaked in free-associative dream imagery can’t disguise the naturalistic underpinnings of this self-indulgent piece, in which a shallow young man attempts to rationalize his bad-boy behavior to his abandoned girlfriend and her pissed-off father.
The narrative line is drawn out in three long scenes, the first set in the squalid basement apartment where would-be artist Tommy (Joe Petcka) has withdrawn to search for his existential self, which he suspects resides in his refrigerator. (“Hail to you, O my refrigerator. Is my self in you?”) Petcka, a certifiable hunk in grubby white jeans, gives the character oodles of sex appeal, but to speak charitably, the role is beyond his reach.
Being a more pragmatic soul, g.f. Donna (Eleni Tzimas) is less interested in Tommy’s visions of being one with the universe and more eager to know if he’s still sleeping with her 16-year-old sister. Like her mind, her language also is more earthbound. (“You’re a bum, and you’re nuts, and you broke my heart.”) Tzimas, who looks like the Ford model she is, in Isabel Rubio’s fabulously funky costumes, is such a knockout that it’s hard to fault her vocal inadequacies. Just looking at her is a treat.
In the second scene, Donna takes her grievances to her dad (David Ditto Tawil), who isn’t entirely pleased to learn that Tommy has behaved like a cad to his daughters. But being an artist himself, he can relate to an artist’s need to protect his genius by evading messy emotional commitments.
Although Dad’s attitude toward women is no higher on the evolutionary scale of post-Neanderthal cognition than Tommy’s, he does express himself with more coherence and less narcissistic cant. At times, Dad is downright eloquent, in the straight-from-the-gut idiom that defines Shanley’s peculiar brand of poetry, and Tawil is just the kind of hard-jawed actor who can put that bluntness across.
“Women are very concerned about being trapped,” Dad says, in one of the most provocative passages in this erratic play. “So what they do, a lot of ’em, to feel strong, they trap a man. They trap some guy in their dream. And then they feel trapped cause they gotta guard what they caught.”
Try as he might, even Tawil can’t stand up to Shanley’s fruity flights of dialogue in the last scene, in which Dad reunites the lovers after giving them some garbled instruction on how to respect their individual selves. But flanked by two of the prettiest performers ever to grace a downtown cellar-stage, he looks understandably happy.