- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

If you’ve ever experienced the peculiar torture of chronic insomnia, you’ll feel an immediate connection to the plight of Julia (Susan Lynskey), the sleep-deprived heroine of Melanie Marnich’s fitfully funny play “A Sleeping Country,” directed by Gregg Henry for Round House Theatre.

Julia’s months of wakefulness have turned her into a walking exposed nerve. She can’t concentrate. She’s driving her patient fiance, Greg (Marcus Kyd), insane with requests to stay up with her and watch “Law & Order” reruns. She’s also starting to resent everyone who can drift off to dreamland. Her insomnia is portrayed with delightful touches of magical realism — marked off by the phases of the moon, the twinkling of stars and humor that is bracingly bawdy.

Meanwhile, Midge (Connan Morrissey) — Julia’s psychiatrist and best friend — is stumped for a cure. Dr. Midge, by the way, is living proof of the adage that most shrinks could use a time or two on the couch. Meant to be a colorful kook in the vein of the therapist in Christopher Durang’s comedy “Beyond Therapy,” Midge instead makes you want to run to the AMA ethics board. A narcissistic nymphomaniac, the good doctor hogs the sessions to talk about herself and her sex life. She diagnoses Julia by Googling “insomnia” and comes up with some rare — and fatal — genetic disease.

Julia should be alarmed by Midge’s methods (Midge also has more in common with Dr. Kevorkian than Dr. Freud), but she takes them to heart. She jets off to Italy — on a graphic designer’s salary, no less — to track down an eccentric Venetian noblewoman, Isabella Orsini (Brigid Cleary), who has the disease. With this, “A Sleeping Country” becomes something of a bad dream as the highly theatrical, high-living Isabella tritely plies Julia with Italian food and wine and teaches her to live, laugh and love.

The obviousness of this is reinforced by a Venetian setting that includes a gondolier, strains of “O Sole Mio” and all the Italians speaking like-a this and like-a that. Things don’t improve once Julia gets back to New York. The playwright strives for profundity and the deft whimsy of Sarah Ruhl, but instead we are handed the hoary platitude that “travel changes you” — and the play ends with Julia asking Greg to love her, flaws and all.

That type of scene worked beautifully in the movie “Notting Hill” and countless other milieus, but here you wonder just how long a relationship is going to last when one half of the couple is essentially a zombie.

The play’s characters are skit-worthy caricatures, and the cast tries to fill in the gaps with robust energy. They can’t, however, surmount a play that’s a mishmash of styles and approaches.

Like an insomniac trapped between the waking world and the land of nod, “A Sleeping Country” restlessly trods between absurdist farce and romantic comedy.

★★½

WHAT: “A Sleeping Country,” by Melanie Marnich

WHERE: Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 21.

TICKETS: $25 to $60

PHONE: 240/644-1100

WEB SITE: www.roundhousetheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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