nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 3, 2008
Sleeper, written by David Ian Lee and directed by Nat Cassidy, is an enormously serious play about, principally, the need for forceful and positive political action in America. Near the end of the play, one of its main characters, an American doctor named Bobby Guffin who has been taken hostage by a militant group in Pakistan, tells one of his captors that when 9/11 happened Americans weren't used to having to make hard decisions such as those they now faced. His guard, a Pakistani named Mahid Yousef, replies that Americans stopped making decisions of any kind long ago.
Lee's point is very well taken; and in this critical election year, much of what's on his mind should be on the minds of many. Some of the issues that figure importantly in his play are: how American actions (and inaction) have caused mind-boggling strife in many areas of the world; the ways that 9/11 and the Iraqi War have been manipulated for political and/or economic gain in some quarters, and have been used as smoke screens to try to prevent certain kinds of discourse in the polity; the badly broken American health care system; the unscrupulous tactics of the media and how they sometimes circumvent the proper workings of democracy (perhaps the most chilling line in a play filled with them is one uttered by Rachel Anderson, a cable news anchor, who jubilantly announces to her husband, when a Senator she's been badgering resigns, that she has more power than the American electorate).
Let me backtrack here to supply a summary of the plot. Sleeper follows several characters whose fates interlock in interesting ways. One is Bobby Guffin, a highly-paid medical consultant who is trying, one hospital at a time, to bring better health care coverage to all Americans, against the odds. He eventually becomes so burnt-out by his work that he takes another job abroad that he hopes will bring him fulfillment but instead ends with him being abducted. Bobby's wife, Teri, struggles to keep her marriage alive, and then turns political activist after her husband disappears.
The other key figure in Sleeper is Rachel, an ambitious journalist in the Bill O'Reilly mold who rises from local news reporter to top-rated celebrity news anchor. Rachel's husband is a religious ex-football star who does not want to leave their home in Florida to live in a sinful big city like New York (this is one of several interesting subplots that Lee unfortunately does not have time to explore). Rachel is far and away the best-developed and most interesting character in the play, the one whose back story is most clearly examined and whose motivations and personality are most fully explored. It's a shame that she is, in many ways, the most reprehensible character in the piece—or, if that's too strong a word, the one I am least inclined to want to spend any time with whatsoever. Much of the play's second act is given over to a very accurate depiction of the kind of lopsided "interview" that opinionated newspeople of Rachel's ilk indulge in on national TV; it's well-crafted, but not something I particularly wanted to see re-created on stage.
Indeed, Sleeper sometimes feels like it's shoving Red State dogma into our Blue State faces—probably in the interest of balance, but perhaps to the detriment of the piece's theme of the necessity of political change. It seemed to me that too much stage time was given to Rachel's exploitative tactics and to the scary machinations of Bobby's captors...and that too little was given over to what could be construed as hopeful or constructive.
The play is more than 2-1/2 hours long and would benefit from significant editing; probably if Lee would focus on just one or two of the very worthy issues he is exploring here, Sleeper could become more effective. The play also suffered from the circumstances of its presentation (it's being presented on the set of another play on its "dark" nights); I suspect that it would work better on a larger, more open stage.
The production does feature some solid performances, notably Lee's as Bobby (he is particularly convincing in the scenes depicting his abduction: uncomfortably so), Kristen Vaughan's solid turn as Rachel, and David Dartley's portrayal of Bobby's complex and conflicted guard, Mahid. Cassidy's direction shrewdly balances moments of humor with the mostly grim situations and issues of the play, and keeps things fluid throughout.
Sleeper is laudable for its ambition and its serious sense of purpose; too few contemporary American playwrights seem willing to do what Lee does here, which is to confront, and place on stage, many of the all-too-real challenges facing our country at this pivotal point in our history.