Mandy Levin and Benjamin Mathes have disastrously different takes on the… (Nancy Savan )
More than a decade after 9/11, most of us are pleasantly removed from the fear, paranoia and fanatical patriotism that ruled us in its wake. Was that really us, trolling for black-market Cipro and calling the police on bearded men? Did we honestly believe, as anxious housewife Gretchen complains in the dark comedy “The Sleeper,” now at Theatre Tribe, that our country had been attacked “for no reason?”
As this zippy, hilarious revival of Catherine Butterfield’s 2004 play, flawlessly directed by Theatre Tribe founder Stuart Rogers, reminds us: It was and we did. Frightened, let down by our government, confused by our pundits (whose overlapping chatter opens the show in a perfectly scene-setting sequence by sound designer Cricket Myers), many of us made choices that proved, in retrospect, unwise. And although that was 10 years ago, this perceptive play might make you uneasy about the choices you’re making now -- and blaming on these “crazy times.”
The mesmerizing Mandy Levin plays Gretchen, a well-meaning, high-strung housewife gamely trying to incorporate post-9/11 anxiety into her already-stressful routine. As room mom for her son’s class, she perkily reminds the other moms that it’s a TAD (terrorism alert day) but seems undone by a leaking faucet. Her belligerent husband, Bill (Pete Gardner), treats her with flagrant contempt. Grudgingly permitting her to attend an anthrax-awareness seminar, he adds, “Just know how stupid it is.”
For reasons that don’t emerge until the end, Bill and Gretchen’s sexpot sister, Vivien (Corie Vickers), take turns narrating Gretchen’s story, bickering about which of them is more to blame for the tragedy to come. (They don’t give it away in advance, and neither will I.) Both these villains are sharply written if not especially subtle, and Gardner and Vickers make them thoroughly fun to hate.
Gretchen embarks on an affair with her son’s sweet, dreamy-eyed tutor, Matthew (Benjamin Mathes). Until Matthew expresses some opinions about American foreign policy that sound all-too rational today but back then seemed shockingly unpatriotic, Gretchen doesn’t notice how closely he matches the profile of a sleeper terrorist.
At first she just feels euphoric, awakened -- albeit ashamed of betraying Bill. In one wonderful sequence, she ends a rhapsodic soliloquy by plunking into a chair and bewailing her guilt to a therapist (the spot-on Heather Robinson, also excellent as a breathless anthrax expert).
Butterfield, a prolific playwright (“Joined at the Head”) and TV writer (“Grimm,” “The Ghost Whisperer”), confidently switches among settings and does frequent about-faces in tone. In less capable hands, the transitions might be confusing, but Rogers’ direction, supported by Jeremy Pivnick’s crisp lighting, Jeff McLaughlin's flexible set and a backstage crew that is always at the right place at the right time, ensures that the audience knows exactly where to look and when to laugh (often).
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“The Sleeper.” Theatre Tribe, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends June 30. $20. www.theatretribe.com or (800) 838-3006. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.