Adam Rapp writes funny lines for scary people. That’s not a shabby talent and it’s on smart display in “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling,” an absurdist comedy of manners about the primal instincts that surface when a rich and pretentious Connecticut couple host an intimate dinner party. Neil Pepe’s slickly helmed production for the Atlantic Theater Company puts scribe’s skills in the best possible light. But, comes the reckoning, Rapp doesn’t deliver the goods. For all the savage talk and bestial imagery, there are no teeth — and consequently no bite — to this offbeat but superficial comedy.
To suggest the social affectations of Sandra (Christine Lahti, exercising her sublimely wicked wit) and Bertram Cabot (Reed Birney, making easygoing look easy), set designers Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata have hoisted a massive chandelier over the handsomely dressed table in the couple’s tasteful dining room. But we already know that Sandra’s a snob because she’s teaching her maid Wilma (played with subtle sass by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) to speak French.
Before the Cabots and their guests actually sit down to eat, Rapp (“Red Light Winter”) front-loads his play with some cruelly funny cocktail-hour fun and games. Bert tosses out the first conversational ball by telling his friend Dirk Von Stofenberg (Cotter Smith) how much he enjoyed a recent trip to Borneo, in his awed opinion “a place where nature and mythology seem inseparable.” But know-it-all Sandra keeps cutting in with scathing criticisms and corrections, and after driving poor, emasculated Bert out of the room, she practically rapes Dirk.
Preening herself like a well-groomed bird of prey (credit Theresa Squire for the stunning Chanel suit), the supremely confident Lahti swoops down on this spellbound pigeon and pretty much eats him alive.
The avian imagery is not out of place, because flocks of wild geese seem to be committing suicide and landing in the Cabots’ backyard. One corpse turns up as the main dinner course, while others are fed to the African lion that the Cabots’ teenaged daughter Cora (perfectly creepy in Katherine Waterston’s poised perf) claims is imprisoned in the basement.
Keeping the metaphor aloft, Dirk recalls his childhood fantasy of being able to fly. His suicidal son, James (Shane McRae), actually gave it a try — and fell.
By the time dinner is over, the sky has turned ominous colors and the nature imagery has been beaten to death. In addition to those geese on the lawn and the lion in the basement, there are references to wildebeests, crocodiles, orangutans, barracudas, deer, and the rabid wolf in “Old Yeller.”
The brutal nature of the human animal is a familiar dramatic theme and a favorite one of Rapp’s, but much of the symbolism here seems gratuitous and without point. These suburban couples may be every bit as contemptible as their children think they are, but real savagery seems beyond them.
Unlike the married couples who lose their civilized veneer in Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party,” or any number of plays that take place at a dining room table, the Cabots and the Von Stofenbergs are given nothing to fight about, no reason at all to bare tooth and claw. And for all Rapp’s allusions to creatures that fly, crawl, swim, or creep on cat’s feet, the monsters in this derivative play are actually pretty tame beasts.