“Jesus was at best a Nazarene folk singer with high metabolism, a velveteen D.J. voice, and pleasant, dilated pupils,” says Sandra Cabot, a Wasp matron in Connecticut, holding a tumbler of single malt as she looks over her elegant dining room before a dinner party. “Don’t get me started on Jesus.”
Sandra—regal, articulate, wry and icy—is the engine that drives both her family and Adam Rapp’s play Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, which opened Monday night in an Atlantic Theater Company production at the Classic Stage. As portrayed by the superb Christine Lahti, Sandra is charismatic and commanding, a well-bred straight-shooter who has a carefully considered and well-turned line for everything. Ms. Lahti’s performance is the thing here—and she remains magnetically watchable even as Mr. Rapp’s play, which begins promisingly, goes from surreal to silly to incomprehensible.
Dreams of Flying opens with Sandra and her husband, Dr. Bertram Cornelius Cabot (Reed Birney), making predinner small talk with a family friend, Dirk Von Stofenberg (Cotter Smith). As directed by the Atlantic’s artistic director, Neil Pepe, it’s a cleverly exaggerated version of a New England idyll—those over-the-top names, a giant crystal chandelier, Sandra in Chanel and heels, Bert in seersucker and a Madras bow tie—served with an offbeat comic edge. The aproned maid, Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who is quietly very funny), regularly summoned by intercom, is expected to exchange pleasantries in French. “It’s kind of like our own little continuing ed program,” Bert explains to Dirk, deadpan. “Berlitz French, state capitals, Shakespearean sonnets.” She’ll be tested on all three.
The conversation—Mr. Rapp clearly had fun writing it—has that same slightly exaggerated, slightly comic tone: rich-people talk, turned up a notch. Trips taken, exotic countries visited, friends. “We never travel without the Cipro, do we, Bertram?” Sandra says. “We don’t leave the country without it,” he agrees. “The country—I don’t leave Connecticut,” Sandra scoffs. “You can’t even trust the tap water at restaurants any more, and that’s the god’s honest.”
Things take a turn when Bert leaves the room, and Sandra propositions Dirk. She can’t stand her meek husband anymore—“He’s a slug with nipples, a Nerf ball with a mouth,” she says—and she instructs Dirk to slip poison into Bert’s glass. When Sandra says, “The grenadine came from the finest Himalayan pomegranates,” it will be time.
And so we seem set up for an intriguing, amusing examination of the American Wasp family, a smartly talky play in which Protestant repressions turn irrepressible, becoming, instead, loudly and clearly articulated. Sandra and Bert’s daughter, Cora (Katherine Waterston), is four years out of Harvard, still living at home and doing nothing. Many in town have lost money in a Madoff-like scheme, but Dirk, notably, has not. Dirk’s wife, Celeste (Betsy Aidem), once she arrives, is vacuous. Their son, James (Shane McRae), is just back from a stint in “Stockbridge,” the Berkshire village a euphemism for an institution located there, after he tried to kill himself. They all sit down to eat together, in honor of James’s return.