The Sleeper is intended to be social satire about the post-9/11 culture of fear. But this contemporary comedy by Catherine Butterfield somehow manages to be pedantically on-the-nose as it also veers wildly off course.
The story is set in May 2002, the spring directly following the terrorist attacks. Gretchen, in a superb performance by Taunya Crilly, is a lonely, sexually frustrated housewife who begins a tawdry affair with Matthew, her son’s math tutor. While it’s all fireworks at first, Gretchen slowly begins to suspect that her ethnically ambiguous paramour might secretly be a radical Muslim terrorist.
He isn’t, of course. And no, I’m not giving away the ending. Despite the fact that the evidence against poor Matthew is damning, it’s not hard to guess his innocence. This isn’t a play about scary terrorists. It’s a play about scary patriots—which is exactly where it gets a bit gummed up.
Gretchen functions as a sort of everywoman: The 9/11 attacks have left her feeling exposed in her otherwise sheltered existence. She’s upset by the turbulent, violent times into which she has been thrust and believes unquestioningly in the righteousness of her country against the irrational, all-encompassing evil of its foes.
We know this because she says as much to Matthew during a heated political argument. “But we’ve been told,” she protests petulantly after he suggests that the conflict isn’t as black-and-white as she sees it. But while people may believe something just because they’ve been told to, few would actually admit it. Propaganda is more complicated than that.
It’s not just Gretchen’s response to 9/11 that’s over-the-top. It’s the whole conversation surrounding it. Political debate may be exciting in real life but when it happens on stage—as in this scene between Gretchen and Matthew—it brings the action to a grinding halt and turns even the most compelling characters into blatant mouthpieces for the author.
This isn’t the first or only scene where Butterfield plonks her audience over the head with her own sociopolitical point of view, though it is the least confusing. In another obvious yet perplexing scene, Gretchen is subjected to a bizarre rant by the owner of a toy store from whom she buys a badminton set as a birthday present for her son’s friend. The toy store owner demands to know why she’s buying such a gift for a boy. Why isn’t she buying him toy guns instead? How will he ever grow up to be a soldier and defend our country by playing badminton? The sheer surrealism of a person accusing a mother of bad parenting for buying sports equipment might work in another play, but in the otherwise realistic Sleeper, the scene is just baffling.
Here’s the good news: If you can look past political short circuits, The Sleeper is a fun, quirky little ditty, and Aux Dog Theatre Company has mounted a solid production of it. The charm of the production is due, in large part, to the winningness of Crilly who plays Gretchen with ebullience and sympathy. From her first moments on stage, seated at the breakfast table, calling parents on a school phone tree, Gretchen is open and likable. “Oh, isn’t that an adorable outgoing message?” she coos. As she chats cheerfully with the parents on the line and her husband beside her, it’s clear what kind of person Gretchen is.
Crilly makes it easy to care about Gretchen, which, in turn, makes the story compelling. It’s not the searing social satire it wants to be, but The Sleeper is funny and engaging nonetheless.