The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is one of the earlier stage plays written by John Patrick Shanley, the playwright best known for his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning stage play Doubt: A Parable. That the playwright still had nearly three decades of plays to write and awards to win when he finished The Dreamer is quite apparent when watching it being performed. Just as Shanley had greatness yet to come when he penned this tale of male angst in his homeland The Bronx, so too are there flashes of brilliance in this production at The Old Red Lion Theatre. However, there are also moments of jarring inertia, when the audience is left to wonder whether we are to believe or even care about each character’s plight at all, because they are just so emotional and despairing that it becomes a little too much to handle.
Tommy, played by Kieran Moloney, is at what could be described as a bit of a loose end. He’s painted a rather unflattering and worrying self-portrait, and sits looking at it in his dump of a flat on his threadbare sofa. His ex-girlfriend Donna (Stacie Bono) bursts into his flat and his life again to supposedly tell him to stay away from her sister, but really to stare at the man she still loves and wonder with fear if he will turn out just like her deadbeat Dad (Jason Will). The play centres around Tommy’s inability to make things work in his life and whether the love of Donna, and in parts his possible future self in Donna’s father, can save him or only cause more anguish. Tommy is a poetic soul, and Stanley’s soliloquies for the character are full of images so vivid you can taste them, with Moloney’s unhinged performance even making this reviewer forget the stage and feel a little uncomfortable to be in a room with him. However, everyone in Shanley’s world here is poetic – and it comes to a point when you begin to wonder if the reason why no one is able to succeed out of the three is because they’re so damn busy standing around and shouting melodramatic non sequiturs all the time rather than getting anything done.
That’s maybe a harsh statement, as when you look past the outbursts there’s an interesting line of reflection on the role of love and family to be followed in The Dreamer. Designers Celestine Healey and Emma Witter have created a cavernous pit of a home for Stanley’s characters to interact (and despair) and that only seems to intensify this feeling of being on the edge of love and hopelessness and works well as a habitat for Tommy’s feelings of rootlessness. There also are very occasionally some twangs of dodgy Noo Yoick accents amongst all the reflecting, but this doesn’t particularly affect or alter the intense atmosphere created. Instead, Shanley’s desire for everything to be at fever pitch all the time, something he would tone down considerably by the time he wrote Doubt: The Parables, wears down the audience until they are left feeling as tired and dazed as the play’s central character.