Reviewed by Roger Linnett
From the beginning of Raymond J. Barry’s “Awake in a World that Encourages Sleep” at the Electric Lodge, the audience is subjected to a lurching, frenetic exposition of the tormented lives of three people on the edge, presented by a top-flight trio of actors fused into a powerful ensemble. The play examines the price of power, patriotism and loyalty and how they wear on the human soul and, as Barry writes in the program notes, the “exploitation of economically weak countries by giant corporations, as described in John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.”
The movements of the actors often border on vaudevillian, and their behavior is at times absurd, but the rat-a-tat dialog, with sometimes two or all three characters speaking at once, often to humorous effect, keeps the audience riveted, hardly able to catch its collective breath as the focus careens from one character to another as they rant, squabble, threaten, manipulate, cajole and struggle in their personal Dantean levels of hell.
The breakneck pace is intermittently interrupted as the action comes to a jarring halt when the characters confront each other in overtly dramatic poses and tortured expressions, or react to unheard nearby explosions of bombs, representing the omnipresent but unseen fourth character of the piece – war as the means of exploitation – that is at the core of their individual agonies.
Paul and Erica (Joseph Culp and Tacey Adams) are Albee-esque as they grapple with the loss of their son to the war which Paul encouraged his son, as the heroic and patriotic thing to join, although we learn he lied his way out of his obligation, yet claims he is a wounded and decorated veteran.
From the outset Paul seems a man on the edge of a breakdown – devious, high-strung and paranoid, a corporate tool wracked with guilt about his dead son. Erica despises him for his cowardice and for sacrificing their son, even though she too is somehow complicit in abetting the Orwellian perpetual war for perpetual peace
Edward (Raymond J. Barry) is a quirky and troubled underling in Paul’s war sustaining enterprise, bent on quitting. His movements are reminiscent of a Monty Python character, replete with silly walk and exaggerated gestures. Like Paul and Erica, he is needy, lonely and mildly sinister, but ultimately harmless.
After Paul rushes off following an intense opening spat with Erica, he invades Erica’s momentary peace and carries on a cat and mouse flirtation, wheedling and obnoxious, but also terribly vulnerable as he wrestles with his decision to leave the war-making enterprise known as the “Group”, of which it turns out, Paul is a high-powered executive, and his boss.
The play resolves with Edward reawakening in a reluctant Erica the dormant capability to love, although in the end, even as she confesses her love for him, she cannot detach herself from the broken, self-loathing Paul.
Barry’s comic yet disturbing play was first nurtured as a workshop piece at the Electric Lodge during January and February of last year, growing with each performance. It is rare to find a cast commit to a play for such a long time. It is also what makes it so seamless and professionally realized.
The play had its world premiere at the Theater for the New City, in New York in April, 2011, and has returned to its Venice nest. The play runs at the Electric Lodge through February 26, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.
Tickets are $25, $18 for seniors, and $15 for students available thru brownpapertickets.com. Electric Lodge also offers a special $50 dinner and a show deal in association with Hal’s for the Saturday performances. Reservations for this offer must be made in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org.