nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
November 16, 2011
Take a moment and think back, back to the mid-1980s when Public Service Announcements littered our prime time television channels. We were unable to fast-forward in those days so their messages were burned into our psyches. Images of our brains represented by eggs, frying or being smashed; teenage sons shocking their fathers by revealing that the reason they know how to smoke marijuana is because they learned it from the very parent confronting them; and on and on. Perhaps in a world of DVR and Tivo the youth of today needs a reality check when it comes to drug use and the cycle of substance abuse and addiction. If so Dael Orlandersmith’s new play about addiction, Horsedreams, is a blessing because essentially what it boils down to is an extended live-action Public Service Announcement.
The play takes us through the tragic life of a couple, Desiree and Loman, who meet, fall in love, marry and start to raise a child together almost entirely under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They are a successful and attractive couple and on paper it seems that their lives should be shaping up nicely. Sadly the fact that they both come from families with parents who abused drugs, alcohol and prescription medicine pushed them towards a life of addiction that they were both too weak to resist. When Desiree moves past cocaine and into heroin use there are fatal results leaving Loman and their young son, Luka, on their own. This makes way for Mira, a part-time nanny for Luka, to come into their lives. Mira is from 125th Street and Lexington in New York City, the very place that Loman and Desiree have been scoring their drugs. She is the realistic voice in a mad world.
The character of 10-year-old Luka is potentially the most tragic figure. Played with surprising maturity by the appropriately-aged Matthew Schechter, he is innocent, intelligent and passionate about his situation. He grieves the loss of his mother and observes the slow destruction of his father with a heartbreaking intensity with which some older actors are known to struggle. At one intense moment he threatens to become a drug addict just to punish his father.
Orlandersmith takes the role of Mira with remarkable dignity and realism. She seems to be extremely familiar with the subject matter about which she has written. Desiree and Loman are also well acted by Roxanna Hope and Michael Laurence, respectively.
The messages that Orlandersmith tries to put across are loud and clear. The stereotypes of drug users are extremely dangerous. The idea that a wealthy Caucasian couple is immune to the stronghold that drugs like cocaine and heroin can have on a person is naïve. All too often people tend to categorize “junkies” into certain ethnic groups, which is misguided. Orlandersmith makes sure her audience doesn’t miss that point. She also takes special care that we understand the familial cycle of substance abuse.
Unfortunately, I do not believe the play was well executed overall. Given this play’s acclaim (it just won the William Inge Award) and the reputable production team, I was disappointed with the production as a whole. Gordon Edelstein’s direction is fairly basic overall. He has made the very confusing choice to keep Mira on stage from the top of the show even though she doesn’t come into the piece until about halfway through. It was constantly distracting and, as far as I could tell, served little purpose. A similar feeling was raised by Kateshi Kata’s set design. The back wall has an effect such that it seems to have been shattered and the playing area is surrounded by small plastic horse toys, reminiscent of the toys Desiree gave to Luka before her death. In the center of it all floats a long florescent lighting installation that sort of looks like a giant needle piercing their world.
The structure of the play tears down the fourth wall and all of the characters address the audience directly and actors cue each other with dialogue rarely aimed at each other. This word rhythm allows for some compelling moments. The question that is never answered is why they are telling this story and who we, the audience, are to them. It keeps the story at a distance and keeps the messages presented preachy and difficult to relate to. A large portion of the dialogue is repetitive and does not serve the piece. Ultimately I do not believe that Horsedreams sheds any new light on the subject matter it is tackling.