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Terrorism Paranoia Gets Plentiful Laughs in "The Sleeper"

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While there have been a few dramatic plays dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 (notably The Guys and The Mercy Seat), comedies have been in short supply. Considering the tragic subject matter, that’s understandable. Catherine Butterfield’s play, The Sleeper, takes place after the fall of the World Trade Center, but although a character’s fears concerning further terrorist attacks are part of the story, what it’s really about is how legitimate concern can bloom into paranoia. Her treatment of the subject, however, is deft and light and witty, and the new production at Theatre Tribe is delightfully entertaining.

Suburban mom Gretchen (Mandy Levin) is under-appreciated. Her teenage kids are oblivious to her efforts, her unsuccessful actress sister Vivien (Corie Vickers) mocks her loveless marriage, and her husband Bill (Pete Gardner) acknowledges her only with condescension. Frightened by the events of 9/11, Gretchen volunteers to inform school mothers of TADs (Terrorism Alert Days) and takes classes on anthrax protection in her spare time. After one of these classes she meets Matthew (Benjamin Mathes), a school tutor, and has an affair with him. When unusual things begin to happen, her paranoia kicks into high gear, with unexpected results.

Levin is believable and sympathetic as Gretchen, a character initially held together by layers of responsibility, guilt and fear, but she’s even better as post-affair Gretchen, delirious with excitement and the feeling of being her own person again. It’s a superb performance. Mathes also impresses as Matthew, effectively combining charm and a sense of mystery. Gardner is hilarious in his blunt disregard for Gretchen and her concerns (“Do you know one person who has anthrax?”), and Vickers is amusingly wry as Vivien.

Director Stuart Rogers stages the show swiftly and efficiently, and yet manages to highlight every joke and character moment perfectly. Jeff McLaughlin’s set, all painted arrows and columns on the floor and walls with a series of multilevel steps for actors to sit or stand on, is more symbolic than evocative, and yet serves the play well. Butterfield’s writing is concise and sharp and funny. My only quibble with the piece is that if she is going to use post-9/11 issues as a backdrop, I wish she’d explored those issues more. That being said, The Sleeper is still a very entertaining play, and Theatre Tribe’s production is top-notch.

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“The Sleeper” plays through June 30 at Theatre Tribe. Tickets are available online.